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Democracy Now on Trump bombing Assad

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Down the Alt-Right’s Syrian Rabbit Hole

How a Chemical Attack in 2013 set the Stage for Trump’s Post-Truth Presidency, and How We Can Fight Back.

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On August 21st 2013 rumors of a massive chemical attack in Eastern Ghouta, a rebel held suburb of Damascus began to emerge. A series of now famous videos which showed victims laid out on the floor shaking were uploaded. Over the next few day fragmentary details of a major sarin gas attack began to emerge in the western media. As  journalists started putting the pieces together an Austin based conspiracy theorist named Alex Jones went on air to present his own version of events with absolute certainty.

In retrospect the August 23rd episode of “The Alex Jones Show” is worth re watching, because it was a chilling precursor to the alt right movement that would shape how Donald Trump sees the world. Between segments hawking survivalist and pseudo medical products, listeners called in to speak with Jones. One caller ranted about fears that Obamacare death panels would kill his grandmother, Jones suggested Obama’s Muslim background made him a bad dog owner and a segment about the inappropriate conduct of the Clinton foundation ran (remember this was during the summer of 2013).

Read full article here

Russia and the Syrian Regime are Documenting Their Own Crimes

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In the era of “fake news,” Russian hacking, and “post truth presidency,” it can be hard to discern fact from fiction and propaganda from reporting. Over the past few years the smear and bullshit industry has been kicked into overdrive by state actors invested in spreading misinformation.

Propaganda is nothing new but as America comes to grips with the role of Russian meddling in the 2016 presidential election via hacks and so-called “fake news”, many are wondering what, if anything, can be done to counter these increasingly toxic and advanced strains of misinformation. Most worrying is the fact that US president elect Donald Trump seems to be a voracious consumer of fake information, at the expense of US intelligence agencies and other more rational observers.

This seemingly insurmountable challenge has left lawmakers scratching their heads, considering countermeasures and toying with the absolutely unacceptable notion of censorship. For those of us who oppose censorship but are still terrified by the plague of bullshit there is good news. Simply put, the best cure for Russian propaganda is Russian propaganda.

Nowhere is this problem more apparent than in the Syrian war, which despite being one of the most recorded conflicts in history, is still the subject of a massive amount of orchestrated disinformation. As the evacuation of Aleppo kicks off Russia and the Syrian regime are franticly pushing to control the narrative through selective reporting and ad hominem attacks. Pro Regime outlets, Russian TV as well as some western apologists have consistently tried to downplay or obfuscate the reports of mass atrocities taking place in Syria. One of the most obvious propaganda tactics has been to attack the credibility of rescue workers and try to debunk evidence of indiscriminate airstrikes.

Fortunately, the disinformation frequently discredits itself.

In the wake of an airstrike against a UN SARC convoy earlier this year Russian television claimed that Russian forces did not know the location of the convoy and that no airstrike had taken place. Yet they also showed Russian drone footage of a rebel mortar being driven past the very convoy. Russians can’t have been unaware of the convoys location while simultaneously tracking it for proof that it was somehow a legitimate target. The UN subsequently provided satellite evidence that showed that indeed airstrikes had taken place.

Russia and the Syrian regime have claimed that they don’t target civilians yet they have dropped leaflets over Aleppo which threaten the population with extermination if they remain in their city.

There has also been an obsession with discrediting civilian voices coming out of Aleppo. Russia Today and InTheNow have both aired videos over the past 72 hours calling into question the validity of activists tweeting videos out of Aleppo, blatantly asserting that they themselves are part of a misinformation campaign. The implication has been that the activists are somehow linked to the west or are not in Aleppo.

The most startling example of this has been the campaign to discredit the twitter account run jointly by the seven year old Bana Alabed and her mother Fatimeh, from inside Aleppo. During a segment featuring RT’s Anissa Naouai for the Russian funded InTheNow tried to discredit Bana’s and other Syrian’s twitter accounts and pleas for help “it almost looks like a coordinated PR campaign.”  This regardless of the fact that many journalists have been in direct contact in Bana and her mother and Bellingcat’s Eliot Higgins has used geolocation to prove Bana’s precise location in Aleppo.

A subsequent RT segment featuring Murad Gazdiev attacked Alabed’s parents, “for all their concern for Bana’s wellbeing instead of fleeing east Aleppo the parents chose to take Bana deeper into rebel territory.” Gazdiev went on to try and discredit the notion that Bana’s family could have access to internet “the odd thing is how Bana’s parents seem to have a constant internet connection.” Gazdiev claims that while he was in government controlled Aleppo there was no internet yet Bana was still tweeting.

Of course tweets from RT’s own correspondents show that there is internet in Aleppo and anyone who has been to rebel controlled Aleppo knows that there are ways to stay online. Finally after complaining about being blocked by Bana and questioning why she would be “up at 2am,” Gazdiev did acknowledge that she is “a real girl in Aleppo being used as a tool in a war she probably doesn’t understand.” In other words Russian propaganda discredited Russian propaganda, Bana is real and in Aleppo, and Russia knows it.

One of the most frequent targets of disinformation and smear attacks has been Syria’s lauded Civil Defense group known as the “White Helmets.” Attacks from Russian outlets and apologists have been relentless. In a press conference held along with Syria’s UN delegation a Canadian blogger named Eva Bartlett claimed that no one had ever heard of the White Helmets in East Aleppo

Unfortunately for Eva Bartlett and Russia’s disinfo narrative RT also ran a segment where surrendered civilians—undoubtedly in a position where they could be coerced by nearby regime soldiers—claimed that the White Helmets were notorious thieves known to everyone. RT has also claimed that the White Helmets abandon civilians under the rubble. This is what Freud called the logic of dreams. The White Helmets which RT says don’t exist have been behaving terribly according to RT.

The fact checking website Snopes was so appalled by Bartlett’s dishonesty that they weighed on her false assertions that victims were being “recycled” and that Al Quds hospital cannot have been struck on two separate occasions.

The Syrian military itself is also a great source of corroborating information. Earlier this year after the White Helmets were struck in an attack, the Syrian armed forces posted a screen grab on their official Facebook page taking credit for the attack and boasting about “tearing apart” civil defense, yet regime and Russian outlets continued to deny targeting the group.

On Saturday the famous and beloved Syrian doctor Salem Abualnaser posted a powerful video from the roof of Al Quds hospital in Eastern Aleppo, showing the destruction around him explaining to the world why he chose to join the demonstrations in his home city of Tartus back in 2011 and why he is still in Aleppo. The subtext of this message makes it one of the most poignant pieces of footage filmed since the war began.

For several years the Assads themselves have been a great source of information on their own human rights abuses and lies. When the image of a shell shocked five year old, Omran Daqneesh in the back of an ambulance following a regime or Russian strike was seen across the world, Bashar Assad promptly dismissed the image as a fabrication during an interview with Swiss media.

His wife Asma al Assad, however, had a different take,when she was questioned about the photo she did not dispute it’s authenticity. The Assad regime likewise has often claimed to be fighting ISIS in Aleppo, yet pro regime accounts consistently post images of dead fighters in Aleppo affiliated with other groups.

The regime has also dismissed all evidence that it is conducting mass displacement in communities like Daraya as propaganda, yet Syrian state television broadcast images of Bashar Assad visiting a completely bombed out and empty Daraya where he bragged “we have come here to replace the fake freedom which they tried to peddle during the beginning of the crisis- including here in Daraya- with true freedom.” This statement delivered in a completely empty street of a depopulated suburb was a direct denunciation of the peaceful protests that had taken place in Daraya in 2011 and furthermore it is an admission of guilt in the policy of displacement.

After the 2013 sarin gas attack on Eastern Ghouta Assad admitted to having chemical weapons during an interview with Dennis Kucinich for Fox News saying “it’s not a secret anymore.” The Syrian regime has always blamed the Ghouta attack on Syrian rebels in what they describe as a “false flag attack.”

In the immediate aftermath of the chemical attack Russia Today initially aired segments calling into question weather or not the attack actually happened and Russian diplomats insisted that images of the attacks were faked.

Months later as evidence of the chemical attack became insurmountable, Russia Today aired a segment conveniently quoting “Russian diplomatic sources” saying that the Ghouta attack was the work of “an Al Qaeda linked group backed by Saudi Arabia.” Interestingly the segment contradicts previous Russian and regime assertions that the attack wasn’t real, by confirming that “one thousand and a half” people were killed. Curiously the regime has never been able to explain why they think the rebels have never again used their supposedly massive stockpile of sarin.
In recent weeks doubters and deniers have questioned the location and sincerity of activists uploading messages from besieged Aleppo. However as evacuations from rebel held Aleppo get underway more and more video evidence is emerging which proves that Aleppo was in fact full of civilians who were bombed indiscriminately. Activists and residents who’s location and validity have been questioned by doubters and state actors have been posting videos of themselves with civilians preparing to be evacuated in the easily identifiable green buses that have become a notorious tool of Assad’s policy of displacement.

The videos posted by the activists the regime tried so hard to discredit either match the images of green buses taken from the regime side or are in easily identifiable locations. A video of evacuees running in terror seems to have escaped the attention of those openly mocking the besieged and terrified population.

The old axiom that “the first casualty of war is the truth” may be true, but sometimes you just aren’t looking hard enough.

Syria’s Opposition Conferences: Results and Expectations

Syria’s Opposition Conferences: Results and Expectations

Posted by: ARON LUND FRIDAY, DECEMBER 11, 2015

Now they’re all done—three conferences for three sets of self-proclaimed representatives of the Syrian opposition. One in Damascus, one in Syrian Kurdistan, and one in the Saudi capital of Riyadh. For a thorough background, have a look at Wednesday’s post on Syria in Crisis. For the latest on what did and didn’t happen, read on.

THE USUAL FARE FROM DAMASCUS

The government-approved conference in Damascus was billed as a meeting of what was termed the “patriotic opposition” and it took place under the slogan “Voice of the Interior,” Sawt al-Dakhel. Some moderate old school dissidents were in attendance, but most delegates were Assad-friendly reformists, non-revolutionary civil society figures, government-linked tribal leaders, or others of that general inclination. One of the best-known participants, Majd Niazi, is such a stalwart ally of the government that she was discreetly dropped from a series of Kremlin-sponsored negotiations earlier this year because the other participants found it impossible to take her so-called opposition party seriously.

As I wrote on Wednesday, the meeting in Damascus was essentially a media ploy, set up to delegitimize the meeting in Riyadh and broadcast images of an ostensible internal opposition criticizing the foreign-backed exiles. Some of the participants are undoubtedly sincere in their politics, but the meeting itself had nothing to do with independent anti-government forces organizing themselves.

The conference drew little attention except in Syrian state media and that reporting consisted mostly of quotes from delegates who attacked the Riyadh conference. According to a private newspaper owned by the president’s cousin, most speeches were about condemning foreign intervention, including one given by an Iranian diplomat.

THE KURDISH COUNTER-CONFERENCE

The meeting in Syrian Kurdistan was more deserving of the opposition label, although its participants have little in common with most of the people meeting in Riyadh. The conference had originally been advertised for the city of Rumeilan, but it seems it ended up being moved to nearby Derik, known as Malikiya in Arabic. More than a hundred delegates took part.

This conference too, was organized largely in response to the meeting in Riyadh, after Turkish pressure made sure to exclude the dominant Kurdish force in Syria from those talks. Since 2012, Syrian Kurdistan has been under the control of groups loyal to the Iraq-based leadership of the Kurdistan Workers’ Party, or PKK. They use a variety of acronyms and front groups when operating in Syria, but the most recent one—which includes a few smaller Arab and Syriac groups—is a military umbrella organization called the Syrian Democratic Forces, or SDF.

The PKK leadership has played its cards beautifully since the Syrian war began. Having muscled out all Kurdish rivals, the group now receives military backing from the United States through the SDF, while other groups in the PKK sphere, such as the Democratic Union Party, or PYD, work hand in hand with Russia. They have hostile relations with nearly all of the mainstream Arab opposition, not to mention the jihadists, but this is offset by tense yet working ties to Assad. Materially speaking they have done better than any other group in the war. Though they would have been a very poor fit for the delegation chosen in Riyadh, as they are at daggers drawn with most of the other armed groups invited there, the Kurds would seem perfectly placed to benefit from any future peace talks. But instead, due to Turkey’s relentless hostility to the PKK—regardless of the acronym du jour—they fear being excluded altogether.

Now, to outmaneuver Ankara and ensure Kurdish participation in the peace talks, whether as a part of the mainstream opposition or in a separate third-force role—which would frankly speaking be a better fit—the PKK has started to reconfigure its political approach. Using the new SDF coalition, the organization strives to conceal its own commanding role while adding non-Kurds to the group and presenting it as a national opposition alliance rather than as a narrow regional or ethnic project. In this way, they’re playing to what could be a critical mass of interested actors, collectively able to override Turkish objections: Americans, Europeans, Russians, Iranians, and the Syrian government.

To this end, the Derik conference has elected a political counterpart to the SDF, a 42-member body which will be known as the Democratic Syrian Assembly. While most of the groups involved in the conference were either PKK fronts or closely tied to the PKK and its network in Syria, there were also a few other local groups and figures tolerated by the PKK loyalists, as well as a number of Arab and Syriac dissidents.

Of the non-local, non-PKK delegates, most appear to be linked in one way or another to the industrious exile dissident Haitham Mannaa. A leftist intellectual and human rights activist based between Paris and Geneva, Mannaa recently split from the National Coordination Body, a moderate coalition based in Damascus (its remaining leadership has grown close to the Russians and the group took part in the Riyadh conference). He then enlisted the help of his allies in exile and in Syria to create three new organizations: his own Qamh Movement, the Gathering of the Pact for Dignity and Rights, and the more broadly-based Cairo Group. All of which were present in Derik.

THE RIYADH CONFERENCE

Now, let’s move on to the main course: the Riyadh conference. Wrapped up on time, on December 10, the event was met with widespread and unsurprising acclaim from the organizing governments and other nations sympathetic to the Syrian opposition. “We welcome the positive outcome of the gathering of the Syrian opposition in Riyadh,” wrote the U.S. State Department in a congratulatory message, hailing the “broad and representative group of 116 participants.”

At the meeting, a final statement was adopted that laid out the principles for the upcoming negotiations with the government of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad. Among them, according to a widely circulated draft, was “faith in the civilian nature of the Syrian state and its sovereignty over all of Syria’s territory, on the basis of administrative decentralization.” The document also expressed a commitment to “a democratic mechanism through a pluralistic system that represents all segments of the Syrian people, men and women, without discrimination or exclusion on a religious, sectarian, or ethnic basis,” organized by way of “free and fair elections.” The delegates promised to “work to preserve the institutions of the Syrian state, although it will be necessary to reorganize the structure and formation of its military and security institutions.” There would be a state monopoly on armed force. They condemned terrorism and stressed their refusal of “the presence of any foreign fighters.”

Regarding the upcoming talks, the delegates expressed their readiness to engage in a UN-supervised political process such as that described in the November 14 Vienna communiqué, which calls for Syrian-Syrian negotiations by January 2016 and a ceasefire by June of the same year. However, they asked the international community to “force the Syrian regime to perform measures ascertaining its good faith before the start of the negotiating process,” such as an end to death sentences and starvation tactics and a release of prisoners. The start of a ceasefire was linked to the creation of a transitional government, as sketched out in the Geneva Communiqué of 2012. Regarding the most crucial question of all, the conference stated that “Bashar al-Assad and his clique” have to leave power at the start of the transition—not at the end of it.

Last but not least, the delegates also agreed to create a High Negotiations Committee, tasked with electing and overseeing a team of 15 negotiators who will face the government delegation and decide the future of the country. And that, of course, was where it got tricky.

AHRAR AL-SHAM PULLS OUT

Syrian opposition meetings are typically marred by any number of angry walkouts, but in this case there were only two.

The first came in the form of Haitham Mannaa’s last-minute announcement of a boycott. It was slightly disingenuous as by that time it was already clear that Mannaa’s allies were headed to the Kurdish conference instead. Most of the people involved shrugged it off.

A more damaging blowup came when Ahrar al-Sham, the most powerful and most hawkish Islamist armed group among the attendees, was asked to sign off on the agreement. Having already criticized the inclusion of Russia-friendly groups like the National Coordination Body, Ahrar al-Sham balked at what it saw as a watered down and secular-leaning statement and a High Negotiations Committee stacked with anti-Islamist, doveish, and borderline regime-friendly factions.

The armed rebels at the meeting—various Free Syrian Army groups, Ahrar al-Sham, the Islam Army, Ajnad al-Sham, and others—had been pushing to demand half of the seats on the High Negotiations Committee. They got a third instead and most were fine with that. But just as the talks were being wrapped up, around four or five a clock in the afternoon, Ahrar al-Sham issued a public statement saying they were withdrawing from the conference. This caused serious concern among both dissidents and organizers, since Ahrar al-Sham’s integration with the rebel mainstream was one of the main goals of the Riyadh conference.

Different sources at the conference have provided me with different accounts and chronologies, but it appears that the Ahrar al-Sham delegate, Labib Nahhas, who is one of the group’s most well-known doves, simply decided to go ahead and attend the signing ceremony anyway—perhaps after securing support from one or more leaders who were not present. The signing took place at around half past six that evening and Nahhas put his name down as a representative of Ahrar al-Sham.

Then, the confusion began. When reporters pointed out out that Nahhas’s signature was on the document, several high-ranking Ahrar al-Sham leaders (who were not present in Riyadh) responded on social media by confirming their decision to withdraw and not sign. At the time of writing, the fog hasn’t quite cleared, but it appears that Nahhas was more or less acting on his own in signing the statement and that Ahrar al-Sham’s leadership in Turkey and Syria has indeed opted to boycott the meeting. Several sources tell me that this is a manifestation of a longstanding struggle between hawks and doves inside Ahrar al-Sham. But there also seems to be an external element to the conflict. Ahrar al-Sham’s leaders and members inside Syria are being pressured by their Nusra Front allies to abandon all peace talks. But, their leaders are simultaneously browbeaten by foreign diplomats who insist that the group must firmly commit to the UN process or risk losing support, and that it may even end up on a terrorist black list.

If Ahrar al-Sham backs away from Nahhas’s signature, or tries to hedge its bets, it would not necessarily be fatal to the outcome of the Riyadh conference. The group might be dragged onboard again later—and, for the moment, the Saudis and other organizers are simply going to proceed as if there were no dispute, in the hope that Ahrar al-Sham’s leaders will come around in the end. Ahrar al-Sham might also decide that ambiguity is in its best interest and simply let all sides believe what they like. But if the group ends up publicly distancing itself from the conference, it would be very bad news for anyone who had hoped to see broad-based unity and a credible diplomatic delegation emerging from the meeting in Riyadh.

THE HIGH NEGOTIATIONS COMMITTEE

Even though the Riyadh conference has ended, there are still last-minute fixes being done to the composition of the High Negotiations Committee. Several versions of its membership are currently circulating. What seems to have been agreed upon is a list of 34 members. It originally stood at 32, after the addition of extra rebels, but is now up two more after negotiations and renegotiations.

Of the 34 members, nine come from the National Coalition, Syria’s main alliance of politicians in exile. They include people like current National Coalition President Khaled Khoja, his predecessor George Sabra, veteran dissidents like Riad Seif and Soheir al-Atassi, Mohammed Farouq Teifour of the Muslim Brotherhood, the Kurdish politician Abdelhakim Bashar, and the former Syrian prime minister Riad Hejab.

Another five are drawn from the National Coalition’s main rival, the much smaller and more moderate National Coordination Body. Among them are Safwan Akkash, a communist politician who serves as the group’s secretary, and the veteran Nasserite dissidents Mohammed Hejazi and Ahmed al-Esrawi.

Nine others are listed as independents, though many of them are in fact linked to political groups. There, we find Louai Hussein, an Alawite leftist intellectual and former prisoner of conscience, who is the head of the Building the Syrian State Movement, a small pacifist group. There’s also Ahmed al-Jarba, a former National Coalition president with strong ties to Saudi Arabia.

Finally, eleven members are drawn from the armed rebel groups, up from six when the conference began. It remains somewhat unclear how their seats are going to be distributed and whether they will be at the free disposal of certain groups or tied to individuals elected at the conference. Several names have been mentioned, however, including Mohammed Alloush of the Islam Army and Labib Nahhas, the Ahrar al-Sham delegate (it remains to be seen whether he will take his seat). There are also representatives of various Free Syrian Army factions, apparently including Bashir Menla of the Jabal Turkman Battalion and Hassan Hajj Ali of the Suqour al-Jabal Brigade.

THE COMPOSITION OF THE COMMISSION

While the list isn’t yet confirmed, a few things stand out. The most obvious problem is the fact that Abdelhakim Bashar was the only Kurd elected to the Higher Negotiations Committee. Bashar is a senior leader of the National Coalition and closely aligned with the Kurdistan Democratic Party in Iraq, which backs his Kurdish National Council.

Abdulbaset Sieda, himself a Kurd and active in Kurdish nationalist causes for decades, is not happy. “Many Kurds are bothered by this,” he tells me. “To have only one Kurd among 33 or 34 persons elected, that’s completely unacceptable.” He puts some of the blame on the Kurdish National Council itself, saying that it should have tried to secure places for a delegation of its own in Riyadh, to ensure Kurdish representation through the electoral system. With no pre-arranged constituency for Kurdish participation, the voting procedure took care of the rest.

“Every delegation was allowed to appoint its own representatives after negotiating their number of seats on the Higher Negotiations Committee,” explains Sieda. “The National Coalition ended up with nine seats at its disposal, so we tried to create a pluralistic ticket and make sure that we appointed one Kurd, one Alawite, one Christian, one member of the Muslim Brotherhood, one representative of the clans, and so on. Among the nine, we appointed Abdelhakim Bashar.”

“The National Coordination Body also had a Kurdish member in their delegation to Riyadh, Khalaf Dahoud—he is close to the PYD—but they did not put him in their five-person quota. I don’t know why. Then there were a few Kurds among the independents, but since the independents were from many different groups and could not decide beforehand who should hold their eight or nine seats, they had to hold an internal vote about it. That ended with no Kurd being appointed on their ticket either.”

“Now, the idea is that the High Negotiations Committee will appoint a delegation to meet the government,” says Sieda, clearly troubled by the outcome of the vote, although he says it happened more by accident and oversight than by design. “Hopefully we can correct the error then by making sure there are Kurds among the negotiators.”

At the moment, however, the Higher Negotiations Committee is overwhelmingly Arab, despite a couple of Turkmen dissidents (Khaled Khoja and Bashir Menla). On the other hand, there are at least some representatives of all the main religious minorities, including Alawites (such as Mondher Makhous), Christians (Hind Qabawat), and Druze (Yahia Qodmani). Bedouin tribes are also represented, Salem al-Meslet being a prominent figure in the Jabbour tribe and Ahmed al-Jarba a leader of the eastern Shammar confederation. More generally speaking, the political portion of the list has a strong secular streak, although this will be significantly diluted by the eleven rebel appointees.

As for the catastrophic under-representation of women—only Hind Qabawat and Soheir al-Atassi, as far as I can tell—it is unfortunately standard fare in Syrian politics. And non-Syrian politics too, for that matter.

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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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Syria: The Imperative of Protecting Civilians

Judy, age 7, carries 8-month-old Suhair along a street near the Syrian Arab Red Crescent center, minutes before what activists said was shelling by forces of Syria’s President Bashar al-Assad in the Douma neighborhood of Damascus May 6, 2015. (Reuters/Bassam Khabieh)

That which is painfully clear amid the complexity of Syria’s horrific conflict is the operational absence of the Obama administration in protecting Syrian civilians. Some two years ago, a senior White House official told visitors from Capitol Hill that there were no attractive parties in Syria: that there was merit in simply allowing the fire consuming the country to burn itself out. That civilians—many of them women and children—would be disproportionately incinerated in the resulting inferno seems not to have struck the official as morally relevant or policy pertinent. Yet now, as reports of regime shakiness begin to accumulate, some additional practical, policy consequences of having done virtually nothing to protect Syrian civilians from an Assad regime campaign of mass homicide come into focus. 

To put the matter succinctly, the willingness of the Obama administration to make do with moralistic rhetoric about Assad regime war crimes and crimes against humanity has led it to an astounding analytical conclusion: he who has authorized acts of mass homicide on a daily basis—Bashar al-Assad—ought not be removed from power too quickly lest Islamist rebels take Damascus and conduct massacres in communities involuntarily implicated by regime criminality. The barrel bombing, starvation sieges, chemical attacks, and door-to-door atrocities have been so widespread, so intense, and so unopposed by a hollowed-out West that now the specter of additional mass atrocities—perhaps genocide—transcending Arab Sunni Muslims presents itself.

Assad’s strategy from the beginning has been to bind with blood his own Alawite community and others to the political survival of his corrupt clan. One key facet of the strategy has been mass homicide directed largely (though not exclusively) at Syria’s Sunni sectarian majority. Another has been to facilitate the rise of the Islamic State (ISIS or ISIL) and secure its help in marginalizing non-jihadist nationalist alternatives. The rhetoric-rich, action-free response of the Obama administration has been an unintended but decisive enabler of Assad’s survival strategy; an accidental but instrumental underwriter of his clan’s political insurance policy. Now, the prospect of mass murder enveloping other Syrian communities emerges as yet another unintended consequence of substituting strategic communication for strategy itself.

If the administration had considered civilian protection operationally important from the beginning, would the result have been getting bogged down in someone else’s civil war; the doing of stupid stuff? President Barack Obama continues to insist that the only alternative to leaving people utterly unprotected—the alternative he insists his critics favor—would have been the invasion and occupation of Syria. The President has misleadingly made it a matter of all or nothing, thereby justifying his choice of nothing. He did so as recently as May 15 in an interview with Al Arabiya’s Nadia Bilbassy.

Whatever use a straw man argument might have as a here-and-now excuse for inaction or as an alibi for future historians, it fails the test of truth telling. No one has advocated invading and occupying Syria. Even the most dedicated advocates of protecting human beings from mass murder have not recommended such a step. Ways and means that are much more modest are available to an administration willing to transcend talk and do actual things. Examples abound.

Is the protection of Syrian civilians from Assad regime mass homicide at or near the top of talking points employed whenever senior administration officials meet with Iranian and Russian counterparts? Is there a diplomatic strategy aimed specifically at persuading Tehran and Moscow to pressure their client into abandoning mass homicide? Has President Obama wrung from his military advisors every conceivable option—short of invasion and occupation, and even short of bombing airfields—to stop (or at least complicate) the barrel bombing and (if necessary) neutralize possible mass murder alternatives such as Scud missiles and field artillery trained on residential neighborhoods? Is there an ongoing diplomatic offensive aimed at binding regional partners to the creation of safe havens inside Syria? Is there a move afoot to transcend an anemic train-and-equip program by creating an all-Syrian national stabilization force capable of protecting Syrian civilians? 

Are any of these alternatives in play? Or is the President indifferently content to believe there is an ungovernable slippery slope to invasion and occupation that inevitably overrides his commander-in-chief prerogatives? Just how engaged has the President been in elucidating ways and means of mitigating the 21st century’s premier humanitarian abomination? Is the leisurely, terrifying traverse of barrel bomb-laden regime helicopters immune from countermeasures?

Blaming the United Nations Security Council for US inaction is not enough. Yes, Ambassador Samantha Power was right in Kuwait to suggest that Russia and Iran are accomplices to Assad regime atrocities. True, those who developed the “responsibility to protect” doctrine could not have anticipated that a facilitator of mass murder would be a permanent member of the Security Council and therefore able to block the kind of international community intervention deemed legitimate by the doctrine’s advocates. Yet even as the Assad regime returns defiantly and contemptuously to chemical warfare against civilians, the administration that drew a red line and took full credit for relieving the regime of chemicals seems operationally inert. 

This inertness may well persist until January 20, 2017. For some of those who have supported Barack Obama and even served in his administration, it is the source of unceasing anguish, frustration, anger, and regret. True: no administration containing Samantha Power can be deemed perpetually and irretrievably hopeless on matters of civilian protection. Still, the moral and operational failure to date of the United States to try as best it can to protect Syrians from the heartless, merciless depredations of the Assad regime ought to convince all Syrians—except, of course, for the family whose greed has turned Syria into a charnel house—that they are on their own. If patriotic Syrians cannot find ways to overcome their divisions and unite against both Iran and ISIL while themselves pledging to protect civilians, they will lose their country forever. If Iranians, Russians, Turks, and Gulf Arabs see civilian vulnerability merely as an inevitable cost of doing business, Syrians should rise up against the lot of them.

It is humiliating for administration officials to suggest that the man who President Obama said, on August 18, 2011, should step aside, perhaps ought not leave too quickly. Yet it is humiliation well earned. Failure to protect civilians—failure even to try—has fueled a fire that has consumed Syria and burned all of its neighbors. It has perhaps set the stage for new horrors yet to come. Giving the protection of Syrian civilians operational priority as opposed to lip service can save lives, build a foundation for political conflict resolution, and prevent ongoing mass homicide from assuming the additional dimension of genocide. Yet it will take more than words. It will take this President changing course. For as bad as Syria and its neighborhood are today, they can be immeasurably worse twenty months from now.

Frederic C. Hof is a Senior Fellow with the Atlantic Council’s Rafik Hariri Center for the Middle East.

You probably won’t read this piece about Syria

AJE this week ran special content on a grim milestone because it’s important. But our data told us something: few cared.

17 Mar 2015 13:47 GMT |

  • Injured women arrive at a field hospital after an air strike hit their homes in the town of Azaz on the outskirts of Aleppo, Syria. [AP Photo/ Khalil Hamra, File, Aug. 15, 2012]

    About the Author

    Barry Malone

    There’s something in her eyes. Something more than the bafflement you so often see in the faces of innocents victimised by the wars of others. It’s something that haunts. Something that reaches you most powerfully not in your mind, but somewhere more prosaic. In your guts. In your bones.

    Her expression seems to plead directly. To ask of you, do you care? Do you see me?

    When we saw this image, there was no other that seemed more apt to lead our website on March 15th, the day Syria entered its fifth year of misery and mayhem. Its fifth year of slaughter.

    Several human rights groups, and many Syrians, had a powerful accusation to make that day. The world, they said, had failed the country and her people. The world didn’t care anymore.

    The twisted steal the attention. And the people we should pay attention to fade into the background, bit players in a narrative wrongly and unfairly dominated by the grotesque.

    Sometimes journalism itself feels like a fight to get people to care.

    And as often, maybe more often, it’s a fight to get yourself to. Every day, the media deals in stories of death and devastation and despair. Too often, it feels like work, just there to be processed. A day’s pay to be earned.

    But we have a duty. Because these are other people’s stories.

    And they deserve to have them heard.

    On the anniversary, we published a lot of content. There were stirring documentaries, powerful polemics, Syrian paintings, infographics, analysis, interviews, features and news. There was streaming TV. We tried to take our audience into the lives of those caught up in this.

    And all of it was fronted with the bloodied woman, that gaze taking up most of the screen.

    But the number of people who came to our site that day was far lower than expected. As we watched the analytics, tracked our traffic, that stinging accusation of apathy seemed justified.

    There are variables, of course. Anniversaries don’t tend to grab the imagination, some people may prefer other news organisations for Syria reporting, and perhaps our work wasn’t what it could be.

    Then there’s fatigue. It’s been a rough few years for the world. Syria, Iraq, Nigeria, Libya, the Central African Republic, South Sudan, Ukraine, Somalia and more. Dark stories dominate.

    I have never heard so many journalists say that the job is grinding them down nor so many people who watch the news say that they cannot stand to do so anymore. Bearing witness is gruelling.

    Confronting our indifference

    We have seen a stagnation in traffic to our Syria conflict stories since 2012 with intermittent peaks when it makes headlines – Assad says something unusual, the possibility of Western missiles.

    Recently, though there have been occasional spikes, they appear mostly related to ISIL. The taking of Fallujah, the fall of Mosul, the detestable beheadings, and the sledgehammering of history.

    The twisted steal the attention. And the people we should pay attention to fade into the background, bit players in a narrative wrongly and unfairly dominated by the grotesque.

    We find that stories about the suffocating grind and everyday hardship of war don’t do as well. Stories about the almost four million Syrians who have been forced to flee their country, the same.

    When we tweeted the accusation that the world didn’t care, many people retweeted it. But most didn’t click the link to read our stories. Perhaps they wanted to be seen to care. Perhaps they believed that people should care. But they didn’t care enough to read what we had written.

    That’s a shame.

    Because this was an opportunity to take stock. To stand back. To reflect on the fact that more than 220,000 people have been killed and half a country’s population pushed from their homes. To ask the Syrian people what they need from us. To pressure our governments to take them in.

    Our indifference is something we need to think about and talk about. As journalists, we should question our performance. As people, our humanity. Because we can do better.

    And that woman in the photograph should know that we see her.

    Barry Malone is an online editor at Al Jazeera. Twitter: @malonebarry

    Source: Al Jazeera

Are you Progressive Except for Syria? Take the handy test here!

Posted: 02/26/2015 by editor

pes 3We have all already heard of the phenomenon of PEP (Progressive Except on Palestine), in which those who consider themselves progressives (liberals in the USA) or leftists are pretty liberal on every single issue except the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. But, their syndrome has been pointed out and diagnosed fully. A lot of them justify this position by saying that supporting the government of Israel is a liberal position. Their problems are not our problem… they need help that we surely can’t provide.

However, there is another phenomenon far more worrisome because it involves those who are Progressive ALSO for Palestine, and that is the case of PES (Progressive Except on Syria). Those who are afflicted by this malady feel safety in numbers, because they are in fact the majority of non-Palestinian supporters of Palestine. They will actually USE the argument of Palestine as justification of their support of Assad, even though his regime has a terrible record regarding Palestinians, (as did that of his father).  They will argue that support of Assad is a progressive (liberal) leftist value. Whether it’s called “selective humanitarianism” “double standards” or “hypocrisy”, it is a dangerous and insidious disease and should be cured. Here is a little test to discover if perhaps YOU are afflicted with this mental illness.

pes 2Do you perhaps suffer from PES without being aware of it? Fear no more! We’re happy to provide you a self-diagnosis test with simple YES / NO replies so that you can discover your own hypocritical stance, and hopefully, be on the path to the cure.

  1. Did you protest or complain about the unfairness of the USAelections for any reason but believe that Assad won a landslide victory in free and fair elections?
  2. Do you think that Assad is fighting terrorism?
  3. Do you think that the Palestinian cause is being defended by Assad?
  4. Do you believe that the war in Syria is all about foreign aggression due to their national and pan-Arab stances” and is not a people’s uprising? In fact, you think the whole Arab Spring has got to be “exposed” as an imperialist, western plot.
  5. Do you think that the Intifada in Palestine is legitimate and that the uprising in Syria is manufactured (while of course saying so having been paid guest to Assad’s presidential palace)?
  6. Do you think that the Palestinian cause is being defended by Hezbollah even when they target and kill Palestinian refugees and ignore the growing tensions between Palestinian refugees in Lebanon and Hezbollah?
  7. Do you condemn religiously-inspired militias such as ISIS and Al Nusra when they commit murder and use violence against civilians but have not condemned Hezbollah when it commits murder and uses violence against civilians?
  8. Do you think that it was a good idea for the Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine – General Command (PFLP-GC) to shoot on the Palestinians who mourned those killed on Naksa Day 2011?
  9. Have you called Gaza “the world’s largest open-air prison” but don’t agree with the UNHCR claim that Syria’s war “is more brutal and destructive than the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq, and has turned into the worst humanitarian disaster since the end of the cold war.”?
  10. Have you endorsed or thought a No Fly Zone was a good idea for Gaza but reject it as Imperialist meddling or abid to save Al Qaeda if it’s done in Syria?
  11. Do you condemn the Palestinians tortured to death in Israeli prisons (since 1967, a total of 72 Palestinianshave been tortured to death) but have not condemned the 200 Palestinians tortured to death in Syrian prisons since 2011? You naturally probably don’t know about the at least 2100 Syrians who were tortured to deathinside these prisons.
  12. Do the at least 10,000 bodies of prisoners in Syrian regime prisons that were ordered to be catalogued by the regime mean nothing to you since you don’t have details on what the reasons for their deaths could be?
  13. Do you call for release of political prisoners from Israeli jails but do not call for the release of the tens of thousands of political prisoners in Syrian jails?
  14. Have you actually asked for money to bring Gazan children to make a protest for the NFZ but think that asking for a NFZ in Syria is a bid to help Al Qaeda?
  15. Do you think Al Qaeda and ISIS are Mossad / CIA inventions?
  16. Do you protest against the death penalty in the USA: Executions in 2014, 35, but don’t do the same for Iran: executions in 2014, Between 721 and 801 at least.
  17. Do you think it is wrong for the US to provide Israel with armaments because it engages in war crimes but at the same time, think it is justified for Russia to provide the Syrian regime with armaments and military expertsbecause “it’s war against NATO”?
  18. Do you condemn Israel’s “extra judicial killing” but claim that Assad must do everything he needs to maintain power because blocking his actions in any way, even by condemning them “… could end up ousting Assad. It would mean replacing him with pro-Western stooge governance. It would eliminate another Israeli rival. It would isolate Iran. It would be disastrous for ordinary Syrians.”
  19. Have you ever praised Assad’s government because it is secular, or “fighting the enemy of the West”: because after all, you only see the alternatives being Assad or the “Islamic Fundamentalists”?
  20. Did you support Haniyeh and Meshaal until they started waving the Syrian revolution flag?
  21. Do you erroneously refer to the Syrian revolution flag as the “French Mandate Flag” ignoring that even the Assad regime celebrated it as the Independence flag each “Evacuation (Independence) Day on 17 April to celebrate the resistance against the French colonialists?
  22. Do you know the names of at least one Palestinian dissident/political writer but don’t know any Syrian ones?
  23. Do you call the opposition to Assad “Western-backed rebels” either from a Pro-Israel or Pro-Iran standpoint?
  24. Did you protest for Palestinian detainees and even know their names but not do the same for Palestinian detainees in Syrian’s prisons?
  25. Do you know the name of at least one minor arrested or killed by Israel but don’t know the name of at least one minor arrested or killed by the Assad regime?
  26. You have protested against the racist and discriminatory Apartheid Wall and checkpoints in Israel/Palestine but you have nothing much to say about Syrian military checkpoints and sniper-lined checkpoints?
  27. Did you get angry when a US newspaper used a photo of Iraqi deaths, claiming they were Syrian, but when Palestinian supporters use Syrian ones, it’s “illustrating the suffering in Gaza”?
  28. You have protested against Israeli use of phosphorus bombs but you have nothing much to say about the unconventional weapons use by Assad against both opposition fighters and civilians such as barrel bombs andchemical weapons?
  29. Are you critical of the US for intervening in affairs of other countries but think it’s normal for Iran and Russia to be sending troops into Syria to help the regime?
  30. You would never consider Palestine compromising with Israel but you believe that the opposition must compromise with the regime in Syria.
  31. Do you condemn the Saudi monarchy and refer to them as Wahhabis, Salafis, etc., but refuse to recognise that Iran is a theocracy?
  32. Do you think that Assad is simply doing everything he can to protect the minorities in his country?
  33. Do you call the Israeli occupation of Palestine ethnic cleansing but do not speak out against the regime-driven massacres in Syria that are ethnically based?
  34. Do you refer to the Assad regime, Hezbollah and Iran as the “Axis of Resistance” even when they don’t react to Israeli attacks on them?
  35. Do you think the following two statements are both true?
    a. Dissent in the United States is patriotic.
    b. Protesting in Syria is an assault on the State and needs to be quelled.
  36. Do you think the following two statements are true?
    a. Pepper spraying protesters in the USA is a violation of human rights.
    b. The Syrian regime has to use whatever force it deems necessary against protesters, because they protesters have violent intentions.
  37. Do you think that Israel must be brought to the ICC for crimes against humanity but think that the Syrian regime should not?
  38. Do you condemn the USA vetoes on the UN Security Council in favour of Israel but praise the Russian and Chinese ones in favour of Assad both to stop sanctions and to prohibit ICC investigation including three Chinese vetoes on Syria alone out of eight total vetoes in their history?
  39. Do you think the following statements are both true?
    a.Calling a U.S. citizen anti-American or un-American for being critical of the US government is ridiculous, knee-jerk, unintelligent and actually incorrect.
    b.People who are critical of Assad are closet or overt imperialists and want US control over the region.
  40. You do not believe that Russia is an imperialist state while you are certain that Syria is an anti-imperialist state defending itself against imperialist onslaught.
  41. Do you think that Erdogan is seeking to dominate politics in the region in an attempt to restore what was once the Ottoman Empire or even think the US is trying to establish an Islamic State but support Iranian domination and the Shi’a Crescent?
  42. Have you signed petitions against companies such as Soda Stream and Coca-cola but not against weapons provider, the Russian monopoly Rosoboronexport or even the western companies providing the Syrian and Iranian regimes with surveillance equipment that they use against dissidents and opposition?
  43. Do you call innocent victims killed by American drones or victims of war crimes but consider the Syrians and Palestinians killed by Syrian bombs and chemical weapons collateral damage?
  44. Do you reject the USA/UK “War on Terror” but believe that Assad has a right to use whatever means possible tokill whoever he considers as a terrorist in Syria and that Syria is a sovereign nation fighting Al Qaeda?
  45. Have you mentioned the Blockade on Gaza in conversations and know it is illegal and a crime against humanity but don’t feel the same about the Blockade on Yarmouk?
  46. Do you respond to criticism of Assad by pointing out USA human rights violations?
  47. You know the name of USA civilians killed by cops or vigilantes, but you don’t know the name of a single Syrian victim of torture in the Assad prisons.
  48. You have protested for the closure of Gitmo, but you don’t raise your voice or even one eyebrow over theSyrian Torture Archipelago in which “The systematic patterns of ill-treatment and torture [in the 27 detention facilities run by Syrian Intelligence] that Human Rights Watch documented clearly point to a state policy of torture and ill-treatment and therefore constitute a crime against humanity.” Moreover, you don’t want to notice that Syria’s government has been cooperating with the CIA extensively in renditions and the torture programme.
  49. You think that Israel should not have nuclear capacity but that Iran should have nuclear capacity. Extra pointsif you support Non-Proliferation. Super extra points if you participated in any No Nukes events in the West or signed any such petitions, super extra and mega extra points if you are against nuclear power.
  50. You believe that the Palestinian struggle is about human rights but the Syrian protests were sectarian and religious-oriented, driven by people who wanted to overthrow and overtake power illegitimately if not in factmanufactured by the West?
  51. Do you believe it’s normal for the Syrian constitution to be amended every time that it serves the Assad familybut the US Constitution is sacred and especially no amendments should be made to limit gun possessionwhether you detest the US government or think it should basically call all the shots around the world?
  52. Do you think that Jews protesting the Israel government are noble people who are fighting for human rights and justice while any Syrian protesting the Assad regime are in cahoots with the Israeli government.
  53. Do you believe that, “We must not in any way call for the removal of President Assad unless he commits acts of terror against us. Assad’s government has committed no such act, thus rendering it criminal for foreign governments to undermine the Syrian regime. You either stand for national sovereignty, or against it. The choice is yours.” While at the same time have supported efforts from the liberals or conservatives to have Obama impeached?
  54. Do you believe that foreign countries helping the Palestinians militarily to win against Israel is legitimate but helping Syrians win against Assad is meddling and think that “any further intervention in Syria would be for U.S. interests, like weakening an ally of Iran, and would encourage Assad’s allies to step up their armament shipments. The carnage would continue, and perhaps increase.”?
  55. Do you reject claims that the involvement of Iran and Russia in favour of Assad is meddling?
  56. Do you think that the entire Syrian war is for the purpose of the US weakening Syria so that it can pursue its own interests in the region but ignore the fact that Russia has enormous interests in Syria that are far more evident?
  57. Have you ever found yourself denying Assad had chemical weapons but also applauding the Syrian regime’s decision to hand them over to Russia as a strong gesture towards peace?

pes 1

How many questions did you answer YES to?

Between 1 and 5? You are headed towards selective humanitarianism, or even are afflicted with Western Privilege Syndrome!

Between 6 and 10? You are dangerously using double standards and believe that human rights aren’t something universal, but allow your ideological or dogmatic prejudices to influence your ethical judgement!

Over 10? You are a dyed in the wool Hypocrite! Maybe you should avoid “current events” altogether, you have no understanding of what human rights and justice mean, you should wash your mouth out before you ever speak about human rights for Palestinians or anyone.

On Nir Rosen’s Definitions of ‘Sectarian’ and ‘Secular’

December 23, 2014 § Leave a comment

by Thomas Pierret

AFP photo. burying victims of the Houla massacre

Foreign Policy just published an article by David Kenner about a report on the Syrian conflict written for the US government by Nir Rosen, an ex-journalist currently working as a special adviser for conflict-resolution NGO Humanitarian Dialogue.

For several months, Rosen has been promoting an approach to the resolution of the Syrian conflict that shifts away from political transition in favour of local truces, a stance that is not dissimilar to UN Special Envoy Staffan de Mistura’s suggestion to “freeze” the conflict.

For many reasons, I do not think that this approach is in any way promising, but my concern here is different: it is rather the distinctly pro-Asad flavour of Rosen’s assessment of the conflict, which makes his piece look like an attempt at whitewashing the regime’s crimes, or to put it like Kenneth Roth from Human Rights Watch did it on Twitter, at sugarcoating deliberate mass-murder.

Rosen likes to remind his interlocutors that he has spent most of the last three years in Syria, speaking to people from all sides. This might be part of the problem: he seems to have spent so much time with regime officials that he is now speaking exactly like them.

Rosen’s report includes an old Stalinist trope about the Asads’ achievements in terms of health, education and infrastructure, an argument even the most obtuse defenders of the regime have started handling with care after the regime started to deliberately destroy much of its own infrastructures to make life impossible in rebel-held areas. In the same vein, Rosen claims that the Syrian regime was not the worst in the region before 2011. This is seriously debatable: by 2010, an aggregate index combining state repression and human development would certainly have placed Syria at the bottom of the regional ranking.

Then comes the breaking news: the Syrian regime is not sectarian, it is even staunchly secular! According to Rosen, the regime’s brutality towards the Sunni opposition “was done more out of a fear of Sunni sectarianism than as a result of the regime’s own sectarianism (sic)”. If Rosen is trying to tell us that the ruling clique in Damascus is not composed of sectarian ideologues, thanks, we knew that: Mafiosi are interested in power and money, not ideology. But that does not mean that their strategy cannot be deeply sectarian at the same time. The Syrian regime manipulated sectarian divides from day one. Does Rosen remember the first days of April 2011, when the Minister of Interior was branding the peaceful sit-in in Homs as a “Salafi Emirate”? Wasn’t that a not-so-subtle way to raise sectarian fears among minorities? Or was the Minister speaking so “out of fear of Sunni sectarianism”? Does Rosen remember that a couple of days later, Alawite auxiliaries were sent to kill protesters on Homs’ Clock Square? Did that also happen “out of fear of Sunni sectarianism”? Later that month, other Alawite militiamen were sent into the coastal village of al-Bayda, and filmed themselves tramping over the bodies of Sunni prisoners. An admirably non-sectarian move, once again! I had thought that faced with the same situation, a genuinely secular government would have sent uniformed security forces from other provinces rather than civilian auxiliaries from the rival local sect, but thanks to his three-year fieldwork expertise, Rosen redefined the whole concept of non-sectarianism: it means acting in a deeply sectarian manner while remaining staunchly secular in one’s heart.

My favourite display of regime “secularism” is this June 2013 speech by Asad’s head of security in Aleppo Muhammad Khaddur, who was trying to recruit Shia militiamen in the villages of Zahra and Nubbul by promising them he would “raise the flag of (Imam) Hussein over Munnagh airport”. That was staggeringly non-sectarian, wasn’t it? And of course, why would one think that a regime that is busy full-time recruiting sectarian militias from as far as Afghanistan is anything else than “non-sectarian in nature”?

I suppose that many of Rosen’s skeptical readers will wonder about sectarian massacres such as al-Hula in 2012, and al-Bayda/Banyas the following year, in which hundreds of Sunni civilians were killed by Alawite shabbiha. Were they also carried out “out of fear of Sunni sectarianism”?

Rosen’s report also includes the baffling claim that most rebels did not take up arms to defend themselves, but “out of religious zeal and political extremism”. So, from 2011 on, tens of thousands of ordinary Syrians picked up arms in a context of bloody repression of demonstrations, mass round up and torture, followed by shelling and air bombing of civilians. By 2012, Rosen was writing, on the basis of his own observations, that by cordoning off their neighbourhoods, the rebels had allowed people to demonstrate without being shot at by security forces, which strikingly looks like a defensive move to me. But after two more years of meticulous research (was it in SANA’s archives?), Rosen eventually managed to isolate the one main independent variable behind the militarisation of the uprising: it was “religious zeal and political extremism”. It is that simple: why care about the context when you can make sweeping essentialist assumptions about Sunni extremism?

Thomas Pierret is a Lecturer in Contemporary Islam at the University of Edinburgh. He is the author of Religion and State in Syria (Cambridge University Press, 2013).

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