Thursday, 23 March 2017
Houssam Muhammad Mahmoud:
'When Donald Trump issued his first travel order in January, halting the arrival of refugees from everywhere and permanently banning Syrian refugees, I contacted friends from Syria in the United States who I thought might be candidates for deportation.
“Our hearts are with you!” I wrote. “We will pray for you. Don’t panic. Resist until the end and never surrender.” I offered to lobby the news media if one of my friends sent photos and videos to my dropbox. He replied with a sour-faced smiley.
It was my attempt at humor. I live in Madaya, nestled below snowcapped mountains northwest of Damascus. Once a town of 10,000 residents, it swelled to 40,000 during the war. We have been under siege for the past 20 months, blocked from coming or going by the Assad regime and by its ally, Lebanon’s Hezbollah militia. We’re convinced that Iran is directing this.
Madaya came into the news a year ago, when people were dying daily of starvation. After an international furor, Hezbollah and the government allowed UN aid convoys in. They arrive once every three or four months, but we lack all the necessities of life—food, fuel, medicine, milk, detergent, electricity, sewing needles, shoes, slippers. A pack of matches costs the equivalent of $13. A pound of sugar can cost up to $100; of coffee, $50. Except for social media, we’re cut off from the world.
We are often under attack. In December, it was days of machine gun and sniper fire, followed by 600 shells and more than 30 improvised “elephant” rockets. Five people died and 65 were wounded. The latest round of bombing began when the UN convened peace talks in late January; 12 people have died from the elephant rockets since then. The wounded had to be treated in their homes because the hospital was destroyed in the December bombing. Our doctor is a veterinarian.
People are still dying of starvation. Madaya went without milk for 11 months. For a while, Hezbollah members were selling it for $100 a pint, but that, too, has stopped. Children are getting just a fraction of the protein and calcium they need. In November, five infants died at birth because their mothers didn’t have the nourishment needed during pregnancy. What grieves us most is the deaths of relatives and friends that could have been prevented if they had been able to leave for medical care.
Just in the past weeks, Ali Ghuson, 30, died of kidney failure. We had been trying to get him evacuated for medical care for four months. There are 27 other people waiting for such evacuations. A mother died in childbirth with her infant. Two women died of illness, one of kidney failure, another of heart illness. Others have died from sniper shootings and shelling, including a 2-year-old child.
I was born in Madaya in 1987 and was a fourth-year student of French literature at the University of Damascus when the Syrian revolution erupted six years ago. I live with my mother and brother here in Madaya and teach at a junior high and high school. When the Assad regime began attacking the nearby town of Zabadani in July 2015, I became a media activist, using my camera to document the barrel bombings there and in Madaya. I began posting the videos on the Internet.
I am haunted by what I’ve witnessed. I recall trying to extricate the body of a man buried under the rubble—along with his wife, a daughter, and another relative—only to have his limb separate from his body. We stayed three hours into the night to bury them because a sniper was shooting at us.
I have nightmares. I see the bodies of people who died in bombings. I see the people who died of starvation and who I helped to bury. I will always remember Suleiman Fares, a farmer, aged 50, who weighed only 55 pounds when we buried him.
I have had personal trauma. Because I have been a media activist, I cannot stay in the town when the government takes it back or I will be drafted, so I was on the list of 1,500 townspeople scheduled to leave this past December as part of an agreement between the regime and the town leaders. It was a bleak moment; we knew we’d be leaving behind our families and our memories. Despite all the calamities, Madaya is still our home. Some of us roamed the streets taking pictures and saying farewell. Then the deal fell through, so I am still here.
No one thinks the current situation will last for long. We’ve seen the government starve other towns and then deport their residents. We weep as we watch. First, Daraya last August, then Moadamiya in October, then Khan Al Sheih in November, Al Tal and East Aleppo in December, and then in January Wadi Barada. Except for Aleppo, almost no one outside of Syria noticed.
Many of us think the regime has promised Madaya and Zabadani to Hezbollah as a reward for its military support. Madaya lies just over the mountain and across the border from Shiite villages that Hezbollah controls in Lebanon. Hezbollah isn’t leaving the area. Their forces are stationed in regime checkpoints, but they are in charge. They built a big underground base called Marj al Tal in the Madaya valley. Every night, we see Hezbollah trucks carrying weapons and driving through the plain of Zabadani to Lebanon.
A local youth who joined the National Defense Force, a Syrian regime militia, told his family about a quarrel he’d had with a member of Hezbollah about the future of the two towns. “When will the people of Zabadani be back?” the NDF member asked. The Hezbollah fighter responded, “This land belongs to us now. We paid the price in martyrs.” Hezbollah is not here to fight those who revolted against the regime but for its own agenda. Hezbollah wants to build a state that extends from the Bekaa Valley in Lebanon through Zabadani to Qusair in Homs province.
Madaya was once a very rich place. Everyone had a car. Everyone had a second house and land in the mountains. Many townspeople had big investments in Damascus, and many Damascenes had homes here or in Zabadani. But it’s long been known as a “town of troublemakers.” Because it’s just across the border from Lebanon, our markets once were full of smuggled foreign goods.
Our first anti-regime demonstration in the Arab Spring was on March 18, 2011, three days after the protest in Daraa, in the south. We didn’t demand reform; we were in the streets chanting “The people demand the fall of the regime.”
The first year of the revolution was peaceful in Madaya, and then the regime facilitated access to weapons. It was very subtle. Soldiers at checkpoints around the town were allowed to sell us their weapons. On one occasion, the regime attacked the town but on withdrawing left behind a truck full of ammunition.
In January 2012, the people of Madaya and Zabadani announced that the two towns had been liberated. It was a crazy step. We never had the weapons or ammunition, but the will of the people, especially the youth, drove everyone toward folly. People here are very proud, even arrogant.
The siege began in early July 2015 with a government and Hezbollah offensive against Zabadani. The ceasefire two months later, arranged by Iran, paired Madaya and Zabadani, two Sunni mountain towns with a population of more than 60,000, with Fouaa and Kafraya, two mostly Shiite towns under siege from Islamist rebels who’d conquered Idlib province that spring. Iran negotiated the deal for the Syrian regime. From then on, no aid came to Madaya unless the same aid went to Fouaa and Kafraya, with a total population of 10,000.
Madaya was far worse off, because there was no way to smuggle food in. Now we are surrounded by checkpoints, and 6,000 landmines are sown around the town. As the government forced out the population of Zabadani and other towns, our population swelled to 40,000.
Famine crept slowly into town. The newly displaced arrived, cold and hungry, with what they were wearing. Some of the families had to wait for hours in the cold while we found them a place to stay.
Then food began to run short. The shops ran out, nothing could be brought in from outside, and emaciated people started to appear in the streets. People would leave their homes early in the morning and walk the streets asking for food. Children carried small buckets and knocked on doors, begging for a bite to eat.
I remember a girl who knocked at our door, asking for a morsel for her mother, who had been unconscious for three days. People would pass out in the streets. Children in my class would fall unconscious in the middle of class. We always kept some sugar to revive such children.
Then people started to die of hunger. I remember the first one had been without food for eight days. We did our best to report to the world what was happening, but we communicated only a small part of the horrifying picture.
I recall a pupil named Hassan Ala’a Eddin who suddenly stopped coming to high school. One day in January 2016, I was visiting the hospital and saw a boy lying on his stomach. I was asking the doctor about his condition when the boy raised his hand and said: “Teacher did you forget me? I am Hassan, your student.” At that moment, time stood still, and my whole universe turned black. He’d gone without food for a week, and couldn’t eat even when a new food shipment arrived because his gut had closed. A friend and I lobbied the Syrian Arab Red Crescent to evacuate him and his sister to Damascus, but he died the next day; she survived.
There was a family from Zabadani living as internally displaced people (IDPs) in Madaya. The father had been killed, and the family consisted of the mother, her two daughters, and the grandfather. One day, when the family failed to find anything to eat, the daughter, 11, wrote her final will and put it under her pillow and slept. The next day, the family shared it on social media and the girl became famous.
On January 12, 2016, we got our first aid shipment, but many starving people couldn’t eat because their stomachs had closed. Malnutrition was widespread, especially kwashiorkor, a disease of severe protein deficiency. Children’s bellies would swell like drums, but they would lose the ability to eat. More than 200 children were affected. We started a media campaign, and medicines were allowed in to cure them.
We’ve all managed to adapt. People are not depressed. They want to get on with their lives. Young people are getting married at double the rate of before. You will see people walking on the streets seemingly unaffected by the threat of bombing. The siege is not the end of the world.
And we’ve learned great lessons from the siege. We learned to preserve the happiness we have, to conserve our resources, and not to overeat. We learned that you are very lucky when you have enough food for each day that you live.
We make use of everything we find. We have very strange meals that you’d never think of. We try to turn the food that’s delivered here into tasty meals. The UN trucks bring beans, bulgur, and rice. We use lentils to make kebabs. Some people mash bulgur and rice and mix them into a cereal to make a traditional Syrian sweet. Others fill grape leaves with lentils and make kibbeh, a dish that usually has bulgur and meat. We turn chickpeas into coffee beans.
We use blankets from the UN and the Syrian Red Crescent to make clothes. The big challenge is heating. At night the temperature is 20 degrees Fahrenheit, and we’ve been without electricity for two and a half years. A vast forest that, since the 1950s, covered the area between Madaya and Biqin has been cut down and used for heating; now we dig up the roots of trees. People chop up the furniture in their houses for heating and cooking. We burn plastic and distill the vapor to produce the fuel that powers small generators.
We have three schools, and we opened a fourth because of the demand. Some of the newlyweds are returning to school to receive a high school diploma. Children play differently here. Mornings they go to school, and afternoons they search for wood. They make a game of fetching wood or water.
Despite all the suffering, our children have hope for the future. When you meet them, you feel they are adults dressed in children’s uniforms. You can see it when they stage short plays. One was about the coexistence of Muslims and Christians in Syria. It told the story of a Muslim child who was starving, and his father couldn’t help him. The child collapsed on the ground and was about to die. Finally a Christian man came by, offered him food, and saved his life. The children played the scene so powerfully that even we, people who have been suffering siege and starvation, cried as we watched.
But in real life, we’ve lost hope of rescue. When the UN convoys first came a year ago, people would run to meet the UN staff and ask them what the likely scenario was for Madaya. These days, when an aid shipment comes, no one talks with them. Not long ago, children of 7 or 8, without anyone’s prompting, approached a convoy with cartoons they had drawn with the caption: “We don’t want aid. Put an end to the siege.”
Most of my friends feel the UN is responsible for the expulsions from other towns. The UN has forgotten its own slogans about human rights and protecting civilians. If we ask the UN to break the siege, the reply we get is negative. They don’t apply pressure or help even one sick person. All the UN does is document the situation.
In December, one group of those getting ready to depart was looking forward to leaving the town. They’d lost their families and property and had nothing but sad memories. I am one of those who didn’t want to leave. I’ve said I’m ready to spend my life eating bulgur under siege. But this is wishful thinking. The reality is that we will leave, sooner or later.
I feel terrible pain every time I think of the green buses the government uses to remove the population of towns it takes over. The choice is bitter, siege or expulsion. I saw what happened to my friends from Daraya who gave up their homes and left for Idlib. Every time I hear that our departure is imminent, I go through agony. To abandon my loved ones, my friends, the memories of my childhood, the grave of my dead father, the taste of water here, the valley and the mountain—it is hard to leave all of that. Your home remains your first love.'
Tuesday, 21 March 2017
'Let me start by making this clear: I want to like President Obama. I want to revere him as one of our nation’s greatest presidents. I want to believe that our imperfect but self-correcting democracy somehow got it right and elected one of its best people to lead it for eight years.
While I think he could have done more to reform Wall Street, the Dodd-Frank Act was better than what we had before, and I think his stimulus package in the face of the Great Recession — particularly the bailout of the auto industry — was a vital part of our economic recovery. I supported his gradual and evolving embrace of legalizing gay marriage, and the drawing down of American forces in Iraq and Afghanistan. His decision to launch an operation to find and kill Osama bin Laden, based on convincing but not overwhelming evidence, was a bold and courageous one. His decision to open up relations with Cuba, which showed a willingness to admit that long-standing American policy was not working, will likely yield benefits in the long term.
And, of course, he’s done all this despite a Congress that has fought him tooth and nail for six of his eight years in office. He’s weathered the slanderous accusations that he was an illegitimate president born in Africa, a lie that nonetheless aided its primary cheerleader in being elected to become his successor. Barely a year ago, nearly 30 percent of Americans believed Obama to be a secret Muslim, a singular piece of ridiculous nonsense that I find bewildering and — as a Muslim myself — heartbreaking. No president in my lifetime had to deal with as much opposition to his authority, and that Obama got anything done at all in this environment is a minor miracle. As he prepares to leave office, I want to remember him fondly.
One talking point we’re hearing a lot during Obama’s final days as president is that he avoided a scandal throughout his eight years in office, something no two-term president has been able to say going back to Eisenhower. I respectfully disagree. Nearly six years ago, unarmed, peaceful civilian protesters took to the streets in towns throughout Syria, as they had in Tunisia, and Libya, and Egypt, and Bahrain, as a generation of young Arabs exposed to democratic ideas through satellite television and the internet stood up to demand their inalienable rights from the tyrants who had oppressed them for generations. Within weeks of each other, peaceful protesters had overthrown dictators in Tunisia — a nation that stands today as arguably the most democratic the modern Arab world has seen — and Egypt, where in 2012 free and fair elections produced the first democratically appointed ruler in the country’s 5,000-year history before the nation backslid into autocracy again two years later.
But in the other countries, protesters asking for ballots were met with bullets, and nowhere more so than in Syria by the Assad regime. Unarmed civilians were gunned down, or arrested and tortured before being killed, which led to more protests and more anger, which led to more killing, which led to civilians trying to defend themselves by any means necessary, which led to a full-on armed rebellion. Rebels of diverse religious and ideological backgrounds were united in opposing a tyrannical dictatorship that compensated for its lack of popular support with military firepower. Hundreds of killings become thousands, thousands became tens of thousands, the vast majority perpetrated by the Assad regime.
And in the face of these killings, and despite considerable support from both sides of the aisle to do something to alleviate the slow-burning slaughter, President Obama chose to basically stand pat. (There have been diplomatic efforts; a trickle of weapons was sent by the CIA to moderate rebels after long delays and with many preconditions; in 2015, a plan to train up to around 5,000 rebels was scrapped after training about five — yes, five.) And no change in the facts on the ground would change his mind. Not the use of chemical weapons to kill more than 1,400 civilians, including many children. Not a death toll that reached almost half a million nearly a year ago. Not the wholesale destruction of cities that now resemble Dresden in 1945. Not the fact that 11 million Syrians — out of a total prewar population of 23 million — have been forced out of their homes. Not the fact that the Syrian apocalypse now ranks as the greatest humanitarian disaster the world has seen since World War II.
In the face of all this, Obama has done next to nothing. And I can’t forgive him for it. I probably never will.
You can’t fundamentally understand what’s going on in Syria unless you understand the root cause: The Assad regime is evil. Many people will condemn this as a simplistic viewpoint, and many more will blanch at the judgmental use of the term “evil.” But another word would only be a cowardly euphemism at best. The Syrian government has ruthlessly suppressed dissent, imprisoning, torturing, and killing its own people, for half a century.
Starting in the spring of 2011, Bashar al-Assad’s regime began killings that set off a chain reaction inside the country and now amount to thousands of deaths. There was an active, widespread, grassroots rebellion — the Free Syrian Army, which included a sizable portion of Syrian army forces, from enlisted men all the way up to generals who had defected rather than obey Assad’s orders. Supporting the FSA could have meant that America could have brought about regime change without putting American soldiers in harm’s way. And Assad didn’t just have WMDs, he brazenly used WMDs in the summer of 2013.
Six years ago, the Syrian people had all the ingredients they needed for a successful revolution like the ones that toppled Zine el-Abidine Ben Ali in Tunisia and Hosni Mubarak in Egypt, except for one: a way to overcome the Assad regime’s military might. The Syrian people tried to do this by taking the military out of the equation, as others had in Tunisia and Egypt, by protesting in completely peaceful fashion. Six years later the narrative has been twisted to portray a Syrian apocalypse between two equally armed sides killing each other in a civil war. This cannot be emphasized enough: The Syrian revolution was, at its inception, a completely nonviolent one.
Nonviolent resistance as a tool against oppression holds a nearly sacred status in our shared modern history; the mere mention of “Gandhi” or “Martin Luther King Jr.” can inspire like nothing else. But nonviolent resistance requires one condition to be effective: It requires your oppressors to have some willingness to negotiate. It requires your opponents to accept compromise as a better alternative to burning their own country to the ground. It worked in America, and after the armies sided with the people and refused orders to open fire, it worked in Tunisia and (at least for a time) Egypt.
But it did not work in Syria, because the regime responded to protests with violence from day one. The revolution started on March 6, when a group of adolescents spray-painted anti-Assad graffiti on walls in the town of Daraa. The government arrested and tortured them — kids ages 10 to 15 — for weeks. When their families and friends gathered in town to protest, troops opened fire. Within weeks, protests had broken out around the country. They would be met with a similar response. This had simply been standard operating procedure in Syria for 40 years. The Assad regime has shown over and over again — as it did when it massacred more than 10,000 people in the city ofHama in 1982 — that there is nothing it won’t do, no moral line it won’t cross against its own people to maintain power.
The uncle of one of my closest friends was thrown in prison in Syria in the 1980s. His crime wasn’t being a democracy activist — it was being the son of a democracy activist. The regime originally locked up the activist, but then decided that rather than make him a martyr, they would simply neuter him by taking a hostage. So they let the activist go and locked up his son — his 17-year-old son — in his place. My friend’s uncle would languish in prison for 11 years before Hafez al-Assad, in a grand show of clemency, ordered the release of a few dozen political prisoners. He found out he was released when he was taken to the prison gate in the middle of the night, wearing only his tattered prison clothes, and pushed out onto the street. He managed to flag a passing taxi, only when he was asked where he was going, he realized he had no idea — he had forgotten his address. Fortunately, the cab driver, recognizing the situation, kindly took it upon himself to drive around for hours until they found a neighborhood that looked familiar, and then a street, and then a building. When he rang the doorbell, his family barely recognized him — no one had seen or even talked to him in 11 years, and he was so emaciated that his ribs poked out beneath his skin.
His naturalized American relatives were able to bring him to Chicago soon after his release in the early 1990s. After immigrating to America, he got married, ran several gas stations, and had four children. I’ve known him for 20 years, but had never heard him utter a word about his time in prison until I bumped into him at the mosque last week and mentioned that I was writing this piece. He took a deep breath and said that he had been thinking it was time to tell his story.
So I asked him.
“Were you tortured?”
He just shrugged his shoulders. “Of course.”
He thought about that for a moment.
“I guess that depends on what you mean by torture. I was beaten by the guards every day.”
“Every single day.”
He went on, the memories seared into his brain even after decades of silence. “They broke both of my legs,” he said, pointing to his femurs. “But then sometimes they would pull me from my cell and do other things. They pulled out my toenails,” he said casually, as if it were the most natural thing in the world to happen to an innocent teenage kid, “and they knocked out a couple of teeth.” He opened his mouth and pulled his lower lip down to show me his implants. “And then sometimes,” he paused and grinned, as if at the absurdity, “they attached me to the machine.”
I stood there, silent, cringing at what was sure to come next. I don’t know what was worse: hearing his story, or knowing that, like Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn’s protagonist, his story is not so different from thousands of others who didn’t get the opportunity to tell theirs.
“They would lay me on the floor naked with my hands cuffed behind my body, and attach electrodes — one to my tongue, the other to my, you know, penis,” he continued. “And when they cranked the machine” — at this point, he let out a harsh, bitter laugh — “my body would lift this high off the ground,” and motioned with his hands 18 inches above the floor.
Many different religious sects have coexisted mostly peacefully in Syria for centuries. The nation was not so much a melting pot as a bouillabaisse or a gumbo — a messy concoction of ingredients that occasionally clashed with each other but usually came together to create something special.
The Assad family comes from one of these religious sects, the Alawites, a small offshoot of Shiite Islam with maybe 3 million adherents in Syria, but really their religious background is irrelevant — power is the only god the Assads worship. What is relevant is that when the revolution began, the Assads tried to turn it into a religious war as quickly as possible, knowing that if they framed their crackdown as one against Muslim extremists and not against ordinary Syrian civilians, the world would turn a blind eye. Rebels have been labeled “extremists” and “terrorists” by the very governments that have been oppressing them throughout human history; if you swallow the tyrant’s narrative unquestioningly, you’ll side with the empire.
So at the same time that the regime was imprisoning protest leaders who were counseling nonviolence and opening fire at unarmed protesters indiscriminately, it announced, in 2011, a handful of amnesties for long-held prisoners — many of whom were known Muslim extremists who preached violence. Assad threw a lit match so he could cry “fire” — and it worked. Within months, alongside the fledgling Free Syrian Army, pockets of extremist groups started to pop up — and unlike the FSA, they were well armed, thanks to a funding network of oil money from the Gulf.
Assad’s strategy was obvious even then, and so was the proper response. I vividly remember, in the summer of 2011, attending a fundraiser for a Democratic congresswoman put together by Americans of Syrian descent here in suburban Chicago. Attendees tried to explain the stakes to her in the naive hope that maybe it would filter up to our president, that the Free Syrian Army, which sought a free and secular Syria, needed support — financial and military — to defeat Assad. And one point stood out above all: Extremist groups were already starting to get weapons thanks to their patrons in the Gulf, and with the death toll at the hands of Assad’s army spiraling upward, if we did not support the FSA, the Syrian people would turn to any group — no matter how odious, no matter how extreme — that would save them from annihilation.
This was Obama’s first miscalculation, to not understand that failing to support moderate rebels ultimately meant empowering the extreme ones. The Assad regime was extremely fragile in the first year or two of the uprising; defections took place at high levels within the government, and large swaths of the army defected en masse. In the summer of 2011, peaceful protesters had taken over the city of Hama, flooding the streets while singing along with the unofficial protest song of the revolution, “Yalla Erhal Ya Bashar,” which translates as “Come on, Bashar, Leave.”
In July 2011, Robert Ford, the U.S. ambassador to Syria at the time, entered Hama with his French counterpart as a show of solidarity with the revolution, and was greeted with flowers and actual olive branches, as hundreds of thousands of people took to the streets to protest the regime. And why not — the White House had already announced that Assad had “lost legitimacy,” sending an unmistakable message that it was in favor of regime change.
American foreign policy has always represented a conflict between our geopolitical ambitions and our desire to live up to our loftiest ideals, and far too many times our government has betrayed those ideals abroad in service of realpolitik. (For examples of this, see the collected works of one Kissinger, Henry.) At its worst, American foreign policy screws up on both ends — as it did when it overthrew the democratically elected government in Iran in 1953, which then directly led to the Islamic Revolution in 1979. But at its best, as in World War II and its aftermath (the nurturing of democracy in Japan and the Marshall Plan), America can flex its muscle in defense of its ideals and advance in the chess game of geopolitics. The Syrian uprising was a golden opportunity to do something both geopolitically advantageous and morally right.
Unlike some other autocratic governments in the region, the Assad regime has never been a friend of America. Its closest allies for decades have been Iran and Russia, which have been two of our greatest foes on the world stage for generations (or at least that will be the case until Friday). Here, suddenly, was a dictatorship facing a rebellion that was pro-democracy andgenerally pro-American. A grassroots rebellion that wasn’t asking America for a single boot on the ground, just help against the decisive airpower advantage that the Assad regime had — in the form of weapons and/or a no-fly zone — because the rebels had no answer for bombs and bullets from the air. Assad’s military power was too strong for unarmed civilians to resist, but Cold War–era Soviet hand-me-downs would be no match against 21st-century American weaponry.
But President Obama was still learning the lessons of the last war. Despite notable support for arming the rebels from within his own administration — including Ambassador Ford, then–CIA Director (and former commanding general) David Petraeus, and then–Secretary of State Hillary Clinton — Obama chose to give the FSA only token support. They asked for weapons, and instead got MREs.
The Iranian government was involved — both directly and through its proxy Hezbollah — with propping up Assad, as Syria is Iran’s only ally in the Arab world. But given that Obama had made securing a nuclear agreement with Iran one of his chief foreign policy goals, pushing back against Iranian ambitions would have given him more leverage to bring Iran to the negotiating table, not less.
By 2013, the FSA was a broken shell of itself, and an extremist group in Iraq decided it was time to expand operations into Syria, renaming itself the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria — ISIS.
The summer of 2013 was also the second and final time Obama was given an opportunity to act, and the second time he made a terrible mistake. In the predawn hours of August 21, the Assad regime’s disregard for human life overwhelmed even their finely honed political instincts, and after years of murdering civilians with no response from the international community, they figured they could launch missiles filled with sarin gas at civilian neighborhoods while people slept. The attack occurred in the city of Ghouta, just outside Damascus, and killed roughly 1,400 people, more than 400 of whom were children. (Exact figures aren’t available, because the Syrian government has forbidden journalists from reporting this story, and has allegedly killed some — like Marie Colvin — who tried to tell the truth to the world.)
The use of chemical weapons is a violation of the Chemical Weapons Convention (a treaty Syria had not yet signed at the time of the attack), and the mere threat of using them was a pretext to the entire Iraq War. In this case, it was also a defiance of President Obama’s own words the year before: “We have been very clear to the Assad regime, but also to other players on the ground, that a red line for us is we start seeing a whole bunch of chemical weapons moving around or being utilized. That would change my calculus.”
In diplomatic-speak, there is no ambiguity about what “red line” meant. It meant that the use of weapons of mass destruction forfeited any claims of national sovereignty by Assad; it meant that America would be within its rights to launch action — missiles that would take out military installations and runways and cripple Assad’s ability to wage war from the air — which might have been enough to tip the war in favor of the rebels.
Assad crossed the red line, and the world waited for the repercussions. There were none. Obama dithered over what to do until Russian President Vladimir Putin negotiated an agreement whereby Assad would agree to give up his chemical weapons — the existence of which Assad had denied until that point — and submit to inspections by an international monitor. Assad got to stay in power; Obama got a way to save face and claim success without ordering any military action, which is like a prosecutor saying he’s tough on crime because he got the murderers to agree to stop murdering people.
We all share in the blame for the decision to not honor the red line in 2013; Congress was reluctant to support military action, and a plurality (but not majority) of the American public agreed with the lawmakers. But it’s not the job of the American public to understand the global implications of the actions of a dictator in a small, impoverished country. Constitutionally speaking, it’s not Congress’s job either. When it comes to foreign policy, as we have known since Alexander Hamilton and Thomas Jefferson rapped for George Washington’s affections in “Cabinet Battle #2,” the president’s decision on this matter is not subject to congressional approval.
Everything since then has been denouement. If Obama wasn’t willing to lend a hand to the Syrian people after children had just been gassed to death, he wasn’t going to help them, period. Teddy Roosevelt spoke softly and carried a big stick; Obama spoke like a schoolmarm and dropped his stick down a well. Once Obama let the red line be crossed without consequences, Assad knew there was no threat behind the president’s words — and a threat was the only thing that might cause Assad to back down. The war has gone on, but the Free Syrian Army basically doesn’t exist at this point; after years of waiting for America to live up to its promises — both figurative and literal — the people willing to fight against the Assad regime have joined up with whoever has the cash and weapons to protect them. (As choosing the wrong people to protect you can lead to death, people have predictably put their trust in groups sharing their own ethnicity and religion, turning a once broad-based rebellion into a completely sectarian war.) ISIS captured the Iraqi city of Mosul in June 2014, announcing its presence as actors on the global stage, and extremists in Syria have gotten more attention than Assad ever since — just as he planned it.
The greatest trick that Assad ever pulled was convincing people that moderate rebels didn’t exist. But they did. That so many people believe that the uprising’s slide toward extremism proves that Assad was right all along reveals a breathtaking lack of understanding and empathy. The Syrian people are being slaughtered by their own government. Entire cities — like Hama and Homs — have been reduced to rubble. Assad has been accused of using helicopters to drop barrel bombs — barrels filled with TNT and shrapnel — on civilian neighborhoods, and the pilot neither knows nor cares who the casualties will be. Journalists and doctors are deliberately targeted, like the British doctor who went to Syria on a humanitarian mission, was arrested by the government, and was killed in prison. In some areas Assad’s forces have resorted to tactics straight out of the Middle Ages, laying siege to entire towns where rebels are holed up until they either surrender or starve to death. In 2015, according to a tally by the Syrian Network for Human Rights, the regime was responsible for 75 percent of all casualties in the conflict, and the vast majority of them were civilians.
My own family has been relatively spared because they live in Damascus, the capital, where Assad lives and his forces hold sway — but “relatively spared” is still relative. My wife, whose parents also hail from Damascus, has a cousin whose husband was arrested by the government two years ago. After months of bribing officials just to find out what happened to him, his family was finally put in touch with someone who knew, and casually told them, “Oh yeah, he’s dead.” They don’t even know why — he wasn’t involved in the revolution at all. When my grandmother was on her deathbed a year ago, my mother was unable to visit her to say goodbye because of the risk that she’d be arrested by the government the minute she got off the plane — for the crime of writing critical things about Assad on Facebook.
And really, that’s small potatoes. My friends whose families hail from other cities in Syria, like Hama and Homs and Aleppo and Deir al-Zour, have all had close relatives killed — all by the Assad regime. One friend learned his cousin, her husband, and their three children were all killed by government gunfire. Their bodies were found huddled together in a corner in their apartment building.
If your own government did this to you, how would you respond? Imagine if President Trump — and if you like Trump, then President Obama — ordered the military into your neighborhood, and strafed your house with gunfire, and a sniper killed your daughter, and, after years of terror, you had to flee with nothing but the clothes on your back. Now imagine an extremist group — let’s call them the Westboro Baptist Church — showed up with guns, and anti-aircraft Stingers, and offered you cash to join them, and in return all you’ve got to do is hold up this “God Hates Fags” sign. What would you do?
I see two main arguments that people use against military intervention in Syria. The first is to point out what happened in Libya. While no two conflicts are identical, there are parallels between the two countries; in both Libya and Syria, ordinary people rose up in protest against an authoritarian ruler in 2011, and in both countries, said ruler was willing to kill as many people as it took to maintain his power. But with Moammar Gadhafi’s forces en route to crush demonstrations against him by force, the United States led a NATO operation against the Libyan army from the air, and enforced a no-fly zone for seven months until Gadhafi himself was captured and killed.
America and the West then did what it usually does when the fighting is won, and ignored Libya’s need for an actual government to replace Gadhafi. In 2014, another civil war broke out. Today, Libya is a chaotic mess.
But it’s in far better shape than Syria is. Critics of the decision to prevent Gadhafi from murdering his people will point out that thousands of people have been killed in Libya since protests began six years ago.
This is undeniably true. But to pin that on intervention is to imply that if there hadn’t been an intervention, few people would have died. That is clearly not the case, and the proof of that is the death toll in Syria, where we did not intervene — and the death toll is half a million and climbing.
The second argument against intervening in Syria is simply that America should not be the world’s police force, that we have neither the authority nor the right to interfere with other countries’ sovereignty, that it’s up to the rest of the civilized world to do its share. To which I reply: congratulations. You’ve gotten exactly what you wish for. We now live in a world where the United States doesn’t play peacekeeper. We now live in a world in which the United States lets other powerful countries, like Russia, police the world. That same world is the one that has given us a terrorist state the size of West Virginia, where 5 million Syrians have fled their country, where Europe is beset by a refugee crisis, and where Russia and Putin’s definition of “peacekeeping” includes helping Assad obliterate half of Aleppo.
If you still think that it would have been wrong for America to get militarily involved in Syria, then I have bad news: America is still militarily involved in Syria. It’s just that our involvement is against ISIS — a group that came to power in Syria only as a reaction to Assad’s brutality — instead. We’re still dropping bombs, and launching missiles, and even sending in special forces — we’ve got boots on the ground in Syria, when not even the rebels who were begging for our assistance five years ago were asking for boots on the ground. We’re still inevitably responsible for some civilian casualties. We dropped more bombs in Syria in 2016 than we did in any other country, in fact. It’s just that instead of using military force to remove a dictator from power, we’re using that force to keep him in power, by using it against the one group more noxious than he is — a group that he deliberately helped promote, and against which he has rarely targeted his forces, for precisely this reason.
In addition to being a moral disaster, and a geopolitical disaster, you could also argue that it has been a national political disaster for Obama and the left. The refugee crisis that has spiraled out of control has brought out the worst impulses of fear and xenophobia in Europe and in America. Brexit and the election of Donald Trump as president — the two most resounding defeats of liberal ideology this decade, if not this century — both came to pass by tiny margins at the polls. To the extent that unease over foreigners — remember, Trump made headlines for calling for a complete ban of not just Syrian refugees, but all Muslims entering the country — pushed even a small fraction of people to support Brexit or Trump, a case can be made that neither would have come to pass if Syria hadn’t spiraled out of control.
This choice made by the president has had a cascading effect, and the world has changed. In the years since, Syria has witnessed half a million people die and millions more flee their homes, Russia has risen on the world stage, white nationalist parties have gained power across Europe, anti-immigrant sentiment has flourished, the Democratic Party has been kneecapped, and his legacy has been debased.
There is a cliché that goes, “The only thing necessary for the triumph of evil is that good men do nothing.”
I want to believe that Obama is a good man. But he did nothing. A nation is destroyed. A people have been killed or scattered to the four winds. America’s authority on the world stage has diminished, and her moral authority has diminished even more. An unprecedented refugee crisis has upended Western politics. The only constant is that the Assad family still has an iron grip on Syria. Evil has triumphed.
President Obama did a lot of good in his eight years in office. But it’s what he didn’t do that I’ll always remember. I never want to see his legacy discussed without mention of the decision that will forever stain it.
And I never again want to hear “Never Again.” '
Monday, 20 March 2017
Usman A Khan Tahir:
'This month marks six years since the start of the Syrian Revolution. This was a movement that, for a brief period in March 2011, looked like it might bring peaceful change to an authoritarian regime. By that point, the dictators of Tunisia and Egypt had already stepped down amid massive protests, seemingly marking a nonviolent end to decades of dictatorial rule in each country. Sadly, though, Syria was not going to be that lucky. Six years on, the brutalities and killings kept on rising to such an alarming level that the United Nations stopped counting the casualties. According to the Syrian Centre for Policy Research (SCPR) estimate, nearly 470,000 have died in the conflict. The Syrian Network for Human Rights (SNHR) estimates that the Assad regime and Russia are responsible for over 95% of the civilian deaths.
Ironically, the two actors that are primarily responsible for 93-95% of civilian deaths are often lionised by a large segment of people both in the world and Pakistan as some sort of bulwark against western imperialism, Zionism, and Gulf-backed agendas.
Syria has become a grand mirror that shows everyone for who they really are; all you have to do is peer into it.
The Syrian Revolution tested the global left by posing a simple enough question: Which side do you support? Do you support the popular struggle against dictatorship, cronyism and tyranny? Or are you with Assad’s repressive regime, his staunch backers Russia and Iran, and Iran-backed proxies like Hezbollah along with the chaotic mélange of sectarian militias?
Unfortunately, too many have consistently failed this test.
When hospitals were bombed in Aleppo, the left looked elsewhere. When schools and markets were bombed in Idlib, the left and Assad chauvinists were frantically searching for clues to pin the blame on brave first responders known as the White Helmets—who were nominated for a Nobel Peace Prize for their humanitarian efforts of bringing people out of rubble created by regime and Russian bombings.
From the very beginning of Syria’s revolution – way before the rise of the Islamic State (also known as ISIS, ISIL, or Daesh) and the Syrian al-Qaeda a few years later – a whole section of the left opposed the popular uprising against the Assad regime. They sided not with the oppressed but the oppressor.
The revolution has continued unmasking states, media outlets, journalists, organisations, individuals and leaders.
The Syrian Revolution didn’t receive the international recognition and support that it thoroughly deserved. One can’t pin that on a lack of information. Syria’s brave citizen journalists, as well as foreign reporters, have consistently struggled and even died while attempting to expose the regime-induced carnage and horror. The likes of Marie Colvin and Remi Ochlik were killed in Homs in February 2012. Ali Mustafa, a Canadian freelance photojournalist, was killed by regime bombs in in Aleppo in March 2014. Journalist Kenji Goto and two aid workers – Alan Henning and Peter Kassig – were beheaded by ISIS. These are just a few of the names who chose to go to Syria in order to document and report the war out of a profound sense of human solidarity, and who ended up paying the ultimate price.
Despite the tremendous struggles of Syrian activists and citizen journalists to document the truth, pro-Assad media outlets all over the world, including Pakistan, focused more on demonising the revolution as a NATO-backed “regime change” operation and labelling all opposition as “jihadist head choppers”. Some others chose to focus instead on the White Helmets, completely ignoring the merciless regime and Russian bombing campaign that uprooted the Syrian people from their land, creating the worst humanitarian catastrophe after the World War II. Before the war, Syria’s population was 22 million. Today, half of those people have fled their homes and more than 13 million people are in urgent need of assistance. Nearly five million Syrians have fled to neighbouring countries. Turkey hosts more than 2.7 million. Hundreds of thousands of others are in Lebanon and Jordan.
The revolution not only unmasked the obvious enemies and Assad sympathisers but it also ripped the mask off of states that only cared about their own vested interests, not the interest of Syrians. When Aleppo was being battered and pulverised by all sorts of Russian and regime weapons, including cluster bombs, incendiary munitions, and bunker-buster bombs, Turkish forces were only a few miles away in the city of al-Bab. A remarkable volte-face of Recep Tayyip Erdoğan confirmed what many had suspected all along: that Turkish involvement in Syria had nothing much to do with Syrians – the real objective was to prevent Syrian Kurds from forming their own territory in northern Syria.
Jordan, on the other hand, has consistently used the Free Syrian Army’s Southern Front—a powerful force comprising of around 25,000 fighters operating in Deraa and Quneitra—as border guards for Jordan. Furthermore, Jordan, while exerting its influence over the Southern Front, has insisted upon these rebels to only attack ISIS and not the regime.
The rampant xenophobia against refugees in Europe, North America and elsewhere made it all the more apparent that governments there were only concerned with keeping Syrian refugees at bay along with counter-terrorism.
A lot can also be said about the role of United Nations. Assad regime consistently denied aid to Syrians in Aleppo, Madaya and other besieged parts of Syria rendering UN utterly helpless and obsolete. To add insult to injury, as many as 14 aid workers were killed in rural western Aleppo on September 19, 2016, when air strikes targeted a UN and Syrian Red Crescent envoy carrying aid. On March 1, UN investigators in a detailed report concluded Syrian air force was behind a “meticulously planned and ruthlessly carried out” air strike on a UN and Syrian Red Crescent convoy at Orum al-Kubra, in rural western Aleppo on September 19.
Donald Trump’s administration also got in on the bloodletting this week by bombing a mosque full of people. The Syrian Observatory for Human Rights said the airstrike took place in Al Jinah, a village between the cities of Idlib and Aleppo. It said 42 people had been killed, most of them civilians, and described the attack as a “massacre.” The US military was quick to deny targeting the mosque. A spokesman for the United States Central Command said the American aircraft had struck a nearby building, but did not hit the mosque.
Battered, bruised, demonised, and ‘hijacked’: the revolution enters its seventh year. Keep the mirror handy, though.
Back in 2013, Syrian journalist Wassim al-Adl poignantly described what the revolution was all about: “Videos of tens of thousands of people demonstrating against tyranny gave way to the images of deserted streets in derelict towns. Of tanks driving up main streets and planes bombing villages. The cynics who didn’t bat an eyelid for the thousands of innocents who were shot like dogs now nod their heads knowingly and speak of a revolution ‘hijacked’. They can go to hell. This revolution was not about an ideology or a religion, and it wasn’t about grand political scheming, it was about normal people who stopped what they were doing to stand up for what they believed in, and they did that even though they were afraid and, in many cases, would lose their lives. Injustice can only sustain itself through fear, and on that day we broke fear forever. This is what the revolution was about I don’t ever want to forget that.” '
'Mohamed Tennari, a medical doctor, was visiting an electronics repair shop in the northwestern Syrian village of Sarmin to have a broken internet router fixed. The store was owned by family friend Waref Taleb. Tennari left the router with Taleb and returned the following day to collect it. Taleb did not charge him for the fix. These were the last exchanges the two Syrian friends would ever have.
The next time Tennari saw Taleb was on March 16, 2015, a month or two later, following a chlorine chemical attack in Sarmin. This time, though, Taleb was on an operation table in the emergency room of the Sarmin field hospital.
Tennari rushed into the emergency room to see Taleb, who was coughing, choking, foaming at the mouth, and barely clinging to life. That night, a helicopter had dropped a barrel bomb containing chlorine that exploded on Taleb's home.
"We couldn't help him because he inhaled a lot of chlorine," Tennari, 36, recalled, who has been working as a doctor in Syria since 2007.
Taleb's family scrambled into their basement to hide. The noxious gas seeped into the ventilation ducts of their house and killed Taleb and his entire family - his mother, wife, Ala'a Alajati, and their three children Aisha, three, Sarah, two, and Muhammad, one.
"They all died. It was so bad that we couldn't save them," he added. "[Taleb] was my friend and it was so sad."
Tennari suspected it was the Syrian regime that dropped the toxic gas cannister. He estimated that he and his staff treated about 120 patients who had been exposed to chlorine that night. The Taleb family, however, were the only casualties.
"They were in the basement and the chemical material was going down. People must go high. Because they were in the basement they really got a lot of this material, the chemical material."
Tennari described Taleb as a family man.
"He was friendly, quiet, [a] good person," he said. "He had a nice family. He loved his family."
On the anniversary of Taleb's death two years later, that night of chaos and terror still gives the Syrian doctor chills. "Helicopters were in the sky at all times and we hear sound at all times and we didn't know what second they would attack the hospital," Tennari said in between heavy sighs.
"We didn't know what to do. Patients were in chairs, on the ground, on the floor- everywhere. We didn't have enough time to stay with one patient. I was going from one patient to another patient every minute. It was so noisy."
This is a fleeting, but not uncommon snapshot of the destructive role chlorine attacks have played - and the fear the chemical has sown - in the country's civil war, which enters its seventh year this week.
Chemical weapons have been a recurring footnote in the bloody narrative of Syria's civil war, which has robbed hundreds of thousands of lives, and displaced roughly 11 millionmore. But amid this troubling saga of chemical weapons use in Syria, it has been sarin nerve gas, and to a lesser extent mustard gas, that have punctuated this ongoing storyline.
Following the 1,300 tonnes of sarin nerve gas and its precursors being removed from Syria, chemical attacks persist there nearly four years later, but most notably in the form of chlorine, which has emerged as the most heavily used chemical weapon in the war.
"We saw chlorine appearing as a weapon in Syria for the first time in 2014," said Ole Solvang, the deputy director of the emergencies division at Human Rights Watch.
"The challenge is there are so many horrific things going on in Syria, that this one issue tends to perhaps be overshadowed sometimes by other attacks that are going on."
In February, Human Rights Watch and Solvang authored a report documenting at least eight instances of chlorine use by the Syrian regime in the battle for Aleppo between Nov. 17 and Dec. 13, 2016. The human rights watchdog verified the attacks through video footage analysis, phone, and in-person interviews, as well as by social media.
The report indicated that the chlorine attacks killed at least nine people, including four children, and injured around 200 people. The attacks, according to the report, constituted war crimes.
"This is, of course, horrific because it is a violation of the Chemical Weapons Convention that Syria is a part of," Solvang explained. "It's horrific for the victims, but also because it really undermines one of the strongest bans on any weapon in international humanitarian law and what we're really concerned about is that the government's continued use of chemical attacks will undermine this ban and lower the threshold for other countries to also use it [chlorine]."
The Chemical Weapons Convention, implemented in 1993, constitute the world's first internationally binding chemical weapon laws. They are enforced by the Organisation for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons, a United Nations-backed agency.
Following the sarin gas attack in Ghouta in August 2013 that killed more than 1,000 people - more than 400 of them children - according a United Nations Security Council report, Syria joined the convention as part of an international agreement - and to subdue the Obama administration's threats of military action. It was the 190th country to sign on.
So to what role has chlorine played in Syria's complex and long civil war? And what has been the human toll?
Human Rights Watch have documented 24 chlorine attacks in Syria since 2014, of which 32 people were killed and hundreds were injured. However, Solvang acknowledged that this is likely a grave underestimate.
"It's a terrifying weapon to most people," Solvang said.
Chlorine is a choking agent. Its greenish-yellow clouds of gas cause shortness of breath, wheezing, respiratory failure, irritation in the eyes, vomiting, and sometimes death.
Chlorine's effects are also largely psychological: the chemical triggers fear, shock, and panic in a way that other conventional weapons don't. In the case of Aleppo, Solvang suspects the regime strategically used chlorine to force a mass exodus of the city.
"Places that were relatively safe suddenly were not safe any more when chlorine started being used," Solvang said. "When people were trying to hide and shelter from explosive weapons, regular rockets and bombs - they would go into a basement because that's the safest place to be. Chlorine is heavier than air so it sinks into those basements, so those basements can become death traps."
Solvang's statement, echoed the way in which the Taleb family died in Sarmin: overexposure to chlorine gas after mistaking their cellar as a safe haven.
"It is definitely very scary if you are a physician in a small hospital with dozens or hundreds of patients that are suffocating and you don't know what to do with all of that," said Zaher Sahloul, a former president of Syrian American Medical Society (SAMS), who is originally from Homs, but who now practices in Chicago.
SAMS has also closely monitored chlorine attacks in Syria. The medical organisation has documented 109 chlorine attacks since the civil war began in 2011.
"The main reason chlorine was used in Syria was to cause panic and to force people to flee. And that's what it really did in most of the instances," Sahloul added.
Sahloul, a pulmonary specialist, attendedmedical school with President Bashar al-Assad between 1982 and 1988 at Damascus University. He knew Assad personally.
"[Assad] was collegial, humble and talkative," Sahloul recalled of his former classmate turned president, who he now accuses of war crimes.
"No one expected him to oversee the destruction of his country, target hospitals and doctors and use extreme brutality against civilians including torture, siege, collective punishment, and chemical weapons."
Chlorine was first used as a weapon by the Germans on French, British, and Canadian troops in World War I on the battlefield in Ypres. A decade later, the Geneva Protocol of 1925, the first constructive international laws banning the use of chemical weapons, was introduced.
But despite its deadly effects, chlorine isn't classified in the same league as sarin or mustard gas. It exists in somewhat of a grey zone under today's international laws and is only regarded as a chemical weapon when it's used maliciously. Chlorine's complicated status on the spectrum of chemical weapons raises tough questions about the definitions of chemical warfare.
For instance, why are some lethal chemicals internationally prohibited, while others aren't?
"The difference between chlorine and sarin is [that] chlorine is readily available," Sahloul explained. "Chlorine is used for many other beneficial ways, to clean water and so forth, in many industries but that's why the Syrian regime has been using it because it's easily done and weaponised easily."
Tens of millions of tonnes of chlorine are produced around the world each year. It's usedto disinfect water supplies, in the manufacturing of pharmaceuticals, antiseptics, and drugs, in textile industries, the bleaching of paper, in the separation of metals such as gold, nickel, and copper from their ores, as well as such household chemicals like adhesives.
Its widespread industrial use makes controlling and regulating its use as a weapon all the more problematic, which has allowed its use to persist in Syria's civil war.
"Chlorine is used on a daily basis in all countries. It can be easily produced, in all of our countries, [regardless] of the development of the country, the materials are available," said Ahmet Uzumcu, director general of the Netherlands-based Organisation for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons (OPCW), the UN-based group that advocates for the destruction of the entire existing global stockpile of chemical weapons.
"It creates panic, of course, and terror especially among civilians [but] the difficulty to eradicate it - it's not declarable - so we cannot ask state parties to declare the chlorine stocks," added Uzumcu. "I believe that it is very difficult to contain it."
The OPCW, which led a fact-finding mission in 2014 to investigate chlorine attacks in Syria, were unable to confirm to Al Jazeera the exact numbers of confirmed attacks, but apress release on the missions stated there was "compelling" evidence that chlorine was used "systematically and repeatedly".
Kelsey Davenport, the director nonproliferation policy at the Arms Control Association, a non-profit organisation that promotes public understanding of arms control policies in Washington, DC, also echoed Sahloul and Uzumcu's assertions on the problematic nature of containing chlorine as a chemical weapon.
"Chlorine is particularly a problem because it has so many uses for industrial purposes that don't have anything to do with weaponisation," she said.
"It can be very easy for organisations to get their hands on chlorine and the necessary ingredients to create chlorine gas, using sort of other mechanisms or justifications for industrial purposes. That makes it much more difficult to control and much more difficult to prevent groups from using," Davenport added.
The precarious situation on the ground makes is even more difficult, if not impossible for governments and NGOs, to verify each attack, and who exactly is on the delivering end: the regime, rebel forces, or ISIL.
Last August, the UN-led a joint investigation in Syria to pinpoint who is responsible for the flurry of reported chlorine attacks. The UN examined nine cases of alleged chemical weapons attacks. They found what they described as "sufficient evidence" of three instances of chemical weapons attacks between 2014 and 2015. Two of these were chlorine gas attacks on civilians by the Syrian air force. Another was a sulphur mustard gas attack by the Islamic State.
"It's hard - it's impossible to use the word 'verifiable'," said Paul Walker , a chemical weapons expert and Director of Green Cross International's Environmental Security and Sustainability programme.
Walker attributed the contrasting numbers of chlorine attacks recorded by NGOs, media, and governmental bodies like the UN to the dangerous conditions on the ground in Syria.
"By looking at newspaper reports, you know there's an average alleged attack with chlorine probably every month and probably for the last several years," he said. "A ballpark figure is a dozen [chlorine attacks] a year. And I think that's a gross underestimate because it's very difficult to verify these attacks when you can't get to the site in a reasonable amount of time, you can't gather forensics, [and] you can't necessarily interview victims."
In response to the UN joint investigation, the United States imposed sanctions on 18 Syrian military officials in January, according to a Treasury Department statement.
And just last month, the US, France, and Britain drafted a UN Security Council resolution that would have imposed further sanctions on Syrian military officials over the alleged use of chlorine. However, Russia, China, and Bolivia vetoed it.
Prior to the veto, the UN Security Council unanimously adopted Resolution 2209 on March 6, 2015, condemning the use of chlorine attacks in the civil war, threatening to take Chapter IV action - recommending possible military intervention - if the attacks continue. But that was two years ago; the attacks have persisted, UN sanctions have fallen flat, and the international community hasn't been able to effectively halt Assad's regime or the rebels' use of chlorine.
With the emergence of the US President Donald Trump's administration, which seems open to allowing Russia, Syria's ally, operate more freely in the country, Assad's regime appears more insulated than ever. Military escalation against Assad, or the possibility his regime will be charged with war crimes in an international criminal court, at least in the near future, seems unlikely.
"The people and physicians, especially in Syria gave up on this issue," said Sahloul, the Chicago-based SAMS doctor, who has testified on chlorine attacks before the UN Security Council and the US House Foreign Relations Committee.
Sahloul is frustrated by the international community's perceived indifference - and its inability - to solve the chlorine problem, and he, too, is sceptical anything will be accomplished in the near future to hold Assad's regime accountable.
"There was a lot of effort that at one point to document all of these issues," he added. "There were testimonies in the [UN] Security Council, there were resolutions, there were attributions, and then investigation teams, and then nothing happened. I think at this point, people gave up on Syria and talking about these issues."
Instead, Sahloul, appealed directly to Assad, his former classmate, to end the brutality of chlorine chemical attacks once and for all.
"I want him [Assad] to see the faces of the children who woke up choking in the middle of the night," he said, in reference to the chlorine attack that killed the Taleb family in Sarmin.
"I want him to imagine the panic in the faces of Taleb family in Sarmin [hiding] in a basement, when they were overwhelmed with the smell of bleach, and when their children - Aisha, Sarah, and Muhammad - started to suffocate; how they rushed to the field hospital and how they all ended up dead."
For other Syrians, like Tennari, the Syrian doctor in Sarmin, who have seen the gruesomeness of a chlorine attack first hand, justice is already too late. Tennari still agonises over the loss of his friend Taleb, and his family, who were all killed by the toxic substance two years ago.
"I'm praying to not be in this situation again: to see a friend choking in front of me and I couldn't do anything," said Tennari, who said he'll continuing practising in Syria as long as the civil war continues.
"I'm so sorry that we couldn't help [the Taleb family]," Tennari said. "I feel bad all the time when I remember that we couldn't help them and they died. I feel weak because of that. I wish that nobody would be in my situation and see what I see. It's horrific. I wish this war will finish one day." '
Sunday, 19 March 2017
"Rebel groups from the Jobar area of Damascus have launched an offensive on Asaad's forces gaining them access to the besieged area of Qaboun.
In response electricity and communications has been cut off from the numerous areas of the capital witnessing offensives."
"Situation is getting worse for Assad regime in Damascus City, these minutes. FSA rebels took control of some strategic points in the city.
They also cut the electricity and communications lines in the city.
For the moment, rebels are only 600 meters away from the Abbasieen square, which is the main landmark in the centre of Damascus City.
All universities and schools are closed in Damascus City.
4 Assadite tanks and 3 23-mm guns are destroyed, 65 Assadite fighters are killed since the clashes began this morning in Damascus City.
44 SAA personnel, including 9 officers, are captured by the rebels since this morning in Damascus.
Still no electricity in Damascus as the power station providing the city with electricity is under rebels’ control since this morning. (1 hour ago)
General Muhammed Hasan, in charge of SAA [corps] in Jobar district, killed by the rebels about 30 min ago.
Damascus streets in regime-held areas of the city are almost empty these minutes. Only cars and tanks.
15 SAA and Russian airstrikes on Damascus, but rebels still advance.
Rebels seized Mercedes office in Damascus, minutes ago. (27 mins ago)
4th VBIED action in Damascus City, 20 min ago, followed by new offensive against SAA forces.
Activists say the death toll for SAA rose to over 85.
Rebels detonated tunnel bomb under SAA headquarters in North Hama, 30 min ago. Dozens of killed."
"Rebels have infiltrated Al Tajarah Neighborhood."
'Six years ago, the Syrian people decided after decades of oppression to cease being mere subjects and to seize a moment of combined enthusiasm and wrath to become full citizens, and to finally determine their destiny. And like all moments of revolutionary and transformational changes, it was beautiful, and fleeting before it was tragically and violently cut short.
After six long and lean years, Syria and its people have been radically transformed in ways almost impossible to fathom. Syria’s cities have been gutted, their streets in as much as one can call them streets look like little valleys surrounded by mountains of rubbles, in many places twisted metal and pulverized concrete make for ugly pyramids of different sizes.
I often wondered that if hell has streets, they would look as forbidden and scary as what goes for streets in many Syrian cities. Even rural areas have been deformed. Six years of killings left half a million Syrians dead, most of them civilians with large percentage of them women and children. Five millions, including some of Syria’s best and brightest, were reduced to refugees living in Lebanon, Jordan and Turkey and scattered throughout Europe after traversing borders and walls and sailing to distant lands on rickety boats the cruel cold waters of the Mediterranean burying some of them in its watery graves.
Little did these refugees know that their plight and presence would shake the very foundation of the European Union, and the idea of a European Union whole, free, and diverse will be assaulted by Russia’s autocratic president Vladimir Putin, and a confederacy of like-minded and would be European autocrats wrapping themselves with the cloaks of hyper-nationalism, with more than a tinge of anti-Muslim bigotry. More than seven million became refugees in their own country.
We are watching the making of a generation of human wreckage; and the world after six years has become numbed to their tragedy. A decade or so from now, the Middle East and the world will have a different kind of encounter with Syria’s abandoned children, later angry, very angry young men.
What began as peaceful, spontaneous protest movement for reform, accountability and empowerment, was quickly transformed by the brutal violence visited by the Assad regime on the peaceful activists. The diabolical regime while brutalizing the protesters, calling them “terrorists” serving “foreign conspiracies”, began to frame the rebellion as a Sunni extremist movement bent on exercising sectarian revenge against the minorities that only his regime is capable of protecting.
The release of hundreds, maybe thousands of Islamist opponents in Assad’s prisons helped giving the rebellion an Islamist façade early on. There is no doubt, that the regional powers helped “Islamize” the rebellion, when they began to help various Islamist groups loyal or beholden to them. The early rise of Jabhat al-Nusra, the Syrian off-shoot of al Qaeda was the first ominous sign that the initial nationalist rebellion will be hijacked by a hardline violent and sectarian force alien in its outlook and practices to the majority of Syrians.
When the so-called Islamic State ISIS drove Syrian rebels from Raqqa, in 2014 the die was cast. A new ill wind will sweep the land. But for all the depredations of ISIS and al-Nusra in its various metamorphoses, and for all the sick ways ISIS executed its enemies, it was the regime of Assad that killed most of the civilians in Syria.
There was a method in Assad’s mass killings of Syrians. He did so gradually, with one eye on his victims, and the other eye on the then weary US president Barack Obama. When Assad realized that Obama’s reaction will remain within the realm of righteous condemnation and indignation, he began to escalate. Machine guns were replaced with artillery, helicopter gunships gave way to large helicopters laden with barrel bombs, then fixed wing aircraft bombers followed, which were supplemented by Scud missiles, then special rockets armed with chemical weapons to be used as a weapon of both terror, and mass killing.
Assad perfected in the twenty first century the use of medieval tactics of siege warfare and starvation. No leader in modern times used these tools of war to savage his own people as Bashar Assad did in the last six years. Assad’s regime would have collapsed under its own weight had it not been for the military intervention, of Iran and its Shiite militia auxiliaries from Lebanon, Iraq and Afghanistan, and later the deployment of Revolutionary Guard advisors and special units. But even this intervention by Assad’s biggest regional ally was not enough, and in September 2015, after Russia realized that the Obama administration was essentially retrenching from Syria, it dispatched dozens of warplanes to Northern Syria, thus changing radically the balance of power in the country. From the beginning, the tripartite alliance of Assad regime, Iran and Russia were bent on imposing military facts on the ground while talking diplomacy, while the Obama administration willfully dropped all its military options.
Even the American limited arming of some Syrian factions, was never serious. America deprived itself of any leverage in Syria. President Obama engaged in embarrassing and morally disgusting dissembling about his intentions and actions and inactions in Syria. Former secretary of state John Kerry became the American version of the Flying Dutchman traveling from capital to capital, meeting and pleading with his Russian counterpart Sergey Lavrov who ran circles around him.
The war in Syria always reminded me of the Spanish civil war (1936-1939) in which major European powers, in addition to tens of thousands of volunteers from all over the world came to Spain to determine the future of the country, and after 1939, the future of the world. For the war in Spain was the prelude to the Second World War. Just look at the armies fighting in Syria today. Both the greatest military powers in the World have forces on the ground in Syria, providing military and logistical support for their proxies (this is the new form of warfare in today’s complex world). The fact that the forces of the US and Russia are not considerable, the political risks are. The US also is leading an international air campaign in Syria against ISIS.
The three major non-Arab states in the region: Iran, Turkey and Israel are fighting in Syria both directly and through proxies. The Israelis conduct air raids to prevent the delivery of new arms shipments from Iran to Hezbollah, and to keep Hezbollah and other armed factions from establishing themselves in areas adjacent to the Israeli occupied Syrian Golan heights. Turkey first opened its borders to would be fighters, Jihadists and cutthroats joining the delirious killing marauders of ISIS, to help topple the Assad regime, regardless of who would do that or what happens the day after, then intervened directly and by proxies to defeat and/or contain its enemies; the armed Kurdish groups, including those helped and supported by the US Iran simply wanted to keep its Syrian satrap in power, so that it could maintain its new status as a Mediterranean power, given its influence in Syria and its huge military and political investment in Lebanon, through its proxy Hezbollah which, for all intents and purposes has hijacked the hapless Lebanese state.
In the environs of the city of Manbij in Northern Syria there are elements of the Syrian army, supported by the Russian forces; they are deployed in the proximity of Turkish soldiers, who are not that far from the newly arrived American Special Forces. Mapping Syria’s Islamist opposition forces, the obvious disturbing truth is that, Jabhat al-Nusra in its latest metamorphoses will dominate in the foreseeable future all other factions that it is trying to subdue by force and intimidation.
The Trump administration is not developing a political strategy to deal with the conflicts in Syria and Iraq, beyond ratcheting up military operations. The US will likely deploy more modest forces, maybe another thousand elements of special forces, after removing the artificial caps on the number of US forces in Iraq (5000) and Syria (500) imposed by the Obama administration. It is a question of time that ISIS will be defeated in Mosul, Iraq, and Raqqa, Syria.
The problem is that there is no answer to the question: what comes the next day, let alone the next decade by way of governance. Given the current toxic sectarian dynamics the victories in Mosul and Raqqa will likely be pyrrhic victories, and the real winner will be identity politics.
President Trump believes that there is a military solution to ISIS and radical Islamism, not realizing that there are military options but not solutions to what ISIS and the other extremists represent. Throughout the election campaign, candidate Trump kept calling for the defeat of the “bad guys”. He is not the kind of leader who understand, let alone practice strategic patience and pursue a long term strategy that answers not only the question of what comes the next day, but attempts to answer, what comes the next decade. Short of such a strategy, president Trump will demonstrate once again the tragic limits of America’s military power, in another Arabian desert.'