Friday, 8 July 2016

The Syria Trump and Clinton aren’t talking about


 'Last month, a convoy of aid trucks reached Daraya, a suburb of Damascus, where an estimated 8,000 residents and 1,000 rebel fighters have been slowly starving for four years. Before the Syrian civil war started, Daraya had a population of almost 80,000. But that was before Bashar Assad’s troops encircled the town and his planes began the daily bombardments that have reduced much of the city to rubble and devastated the wheat fields and farmlands that once sustained it. Many who are left in Daraya subsist on grass and grape leaves, whatever they can forage.

 When the trucks finally reached the center of Daraya, they were swarmed by desperate people, who quickly became angered when they realized the trucks were packed with mostly inedible things like mosquito nets and anti-lice shampoo.

 Ten days later, the U.N. sent another convoy. This one, at least, was carrying food, though it wasn’t sufficient to feed everyone. But it was enough for U.N. officials to claim that they had tried. One senior U.N. official, off the record, told me wearily that it was “impossible to get the numbers right of how many people are actually inside.” This fatalist excuse roughly translates as: People are going to starve, but there’s nothing more to do.

 As soon as the aid convoy left the town, the barrel bombs started again. Twenty-eight of them, by the count of Ahmad, a 23-year-old former engineering student, whom I spoke to by Skype Messenger. Ahmad works as a volunteer in the “media center” in Daraya. I asked him if he had gotten any of the 480 rations of food.

 “No, I have not eaten today,” he told me. “I don’t understand how the world can watch this,” he said. “We’re starving.”

 Though Syria has endured five years of war, and suffered more than 400,000 dead, it manages to arouse as much suspicion as pity. And when it has been discussed at all by presidential candidates often it has been to argue over the need for an immigration ban on all Muslims to prevent terrorists from hiding among the trickle of Syrians entering the country. No one talks about Daraya, or the 18 other besieged towns across Syria just like it where starvation is being used as a tool of war.

 Beginning last autumn and continuing through early this year, the International Syria Support Group (ISSG), the 17-nation group plus the European Union and U.N., convened in Vienna and Geneva to help determine the future of Syria. The group issued a series of directives, most of them quite straightforward: Commit to a cease-fire and allow humanitarian aid to enter places like Daraya.

 So far, Assad has violated every directive, with no consequences for his noncompliance. This demonstrates two things: the U.N., which has been attempting to mediate the peace talks for four years, has once again lost any credibility and that Assad is basically above the law. The question for the United States is what will the next president do about it?

 “Under a Clinton administration, it’s fair to assume there will be a move to discuss the establishment of safe zones, probably first in places away from Russian activities to avoid any potential confrontation,” Shadi Hamid, a senior analyst with the Brookings Institution, says. “Regardless of her own preferences, she’d be under pressure to distinguish herself from Obama on foreign policy, and Syria would make sense as the place to chart a new approach.”

 “Trump’s experience in foreign policy matter is dire, to say the least, and the erratic nature of his approach confounds explanation,” says H.A. Hellyer, senior nonresident fellow at the Atlantic Council’s Rafik Hariri Centre for the Middle East in London. “What little he has said on Syria indicates he’s more comfortable with the Russian position than he is with the current American one, and views ISIL as more of a threat to regional and international stability than Assad’s regime.”

 In late August 2012, news reached me that a massacre had taken place. Daraya had been shelled for two days before Syrian forces entered on August 25 in a house-to-house clearing operation. People were taken from their homes, lined up against walls and in basements and shot.

 I entered Daraya in late August 2012, disguised as a Syrian with a local woman. Before I arrived, The Guardian in London had called Daraya “Syria’s worst massacre” but several well-known Western reporters had traveled inside with the Syrian government and denied this. They were told the hundreds of dead bodies and the utter destruction of the town had been the result of a “prisoner swap gone wrong” and that it was a “counterterrorist operation” to clean up the area.

 But the minute I got inside the town and smelled the rotting flesh of the dead, I knew this was no prisoner swap. I know something of the forensics of massacres and genocides and I could tell from my investigation that people had been lined up against walls and shot. I also knew there were many dead; that potent, sickening smell of rotting bodies reminded me too much of my time reporting in Rwanda, Bosnia and East Timor. Some of the people I spoke to told me the Syrian forces had stormed their streets and houses. They were followed by the paramilitary Shabiha “Death squads.” Some told me they had taken victims into their basements and assassinated them one by one. The ones who survived are the ones who hid. Ahmad was one of them. He was still a teenager then and his family was still intact. This is what he remembers, relayed to me in Skype messaging fragments when he could get electricity:

 “It [was] horrible….I was afraid for my little sister Mareana… We were hiding in a hole under the ground… [it] was terrifying was the smell of blood and death cover the city.”

 There had been warnings this would happen. Earlier that summer, while I was able to work on the regime side, reporting from Homs, Douma, Berzeh and other restive towns, the fighting had intensified. Syrian military helicopters had dropped leaflets to rebels fighting the regime: “The Syrian army is determined to cleanse every inch in Syria and you have only two choices: Abandon your weapons … or face inevitable death.”

 Nearly everyone I know who works in Syria agrees that airstrikes after the 2013 Ghouta chemical attacks would have ended the war sooner and saved hundreds of thousands of lives. “What I would have liked to have seen,” said one senior U.N. official who worked consistently in Syria throughout the war “were neat little strategic airstrikes after the chemical attacks in 2013 that would have sent a clear message to Assad that he could not get away with it.”

 There are some children who were born during the siege years who don’t know what fruit is. Bouthaina Shaaban, a British-educated top adviser to Assad, denied this. In May, she said that “nobody is starving in Daraya”, which was “producing peas and beans and food and wild berries that is enough for the entire Syria.” If that were really the case, of course, there would be no need for emergency food convoys.

 “Daraya is a microcosm of all that is wrong with international policy in Syria,” says Nadim Shehadi, of Tufts. “It has been under siege since early 2013 and the perception is that even the U.N. is complicit in the regime’s siege and starvation policy … If all the West can do is watch while the Assad regime’s allies, Iran and Russia, are fully engaged on its side then further radicalization is to be expected. Syrians want a third choice.”

 The first presidential debate will be held in late September. It will be the first opportunity to press Clinton and Trump to explain their sketchy ideas for how to solve this intractable crisis. Interestingly, the site of the debate is Dayton, Ohio, scene of the famous peace accords.

 Meanwhile, the food from the June shipment will be running out around now. No one knows when the next one will arrive. And it’s a long time until January when the next president is sworn in.'

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