Saturday, 13 May 2017

Syria’s Great Expectations

Car bombing attack in Rashidin

 'When the U.S. decided to launch a missile strike against one of Bashar al-Assad’s airbases last month. Aref Krez was overjoyed. “I am so happy, I am so happy,” he told me via WhatsApp with relief on the night of the strike. “Trump has done what no one did before, I have respect for him you know.” Aref fled Syria a few years ago, and now writes assessment reports about the safety of civilians and NGOs for the aid monitoring company SREO, from across border from Gaziantep, Turkey. Weeks later, Aref is nervous and confused. He says the U.S. should have done more, that he did not expect it to be a one-time strike, and that consultation with Syrian opposition might have helped the U.S in a realistic way.

 He was not alone is his disappointment. The attack was initially cheered by Syrians mostly because it was the first direct U.S. military action directed at Assad, a sign of hope and something that Obama’s administration failed to do. Soon after, though, the regime’s planes resumed their attacks on civilian targets from the same airbase. Even though civilians kept dying, the U.S. did not launch any more strikes. There has led to increasing frustration on the ground.

 Hamidi al-Halabi, a 13-year-old boy from the countryside of Aleppo’s nonregime area, said, “We are thankful for the strike.” But he also said, when he thinks about it, that he doesn’t think the U.S. would do much: “We do not trust the Americans.” For him, the U.S. has intervened too little and ignored too much.

 “America does not care about the victims in Syria. Or human rights. Only its own interests,” Mohammad Moharram, a 29-year-old computer engineer who lives in Kafar Takharem, told me in late April. Moharram feels he is losing trust in the U.S and the international community, especially in recent weeks. “Frankly, I don’t think anyone cares about the Syrian people in opposition with Assad. To me, it all looks like a political game between powerful countries.” Frustration and skepticism is high for many on the ground in Syria.

 In Idlib and Hama provinces, there seems to be an air of confusion about what the current administration really plans to do. Since the deadly chemical attack in early April, I have spent hours and days on WhatsApp having conversations with young boys, civilians, doctors, and engineers on the ground. Sometimes they send me voice messages late at night, and I have felt their hopes turning into feelings of abandonment and loneliness again. Many educated Syrians I spoke to understand the complexities that the United States faces in Syria with other powerful countries involved—like Russia, Turkey, Iran—but they also feel the U.S. has more power to tackle Assad than it claims or uses. As Moharram says, "America has real and strong allies in Syria: Turkey, Saudi Arabia, Qatar, Jordan, and Europe. They can do a lot. This is all the alliance that is needed. If only the U.S. works with these allies, it can move to isolate Assad and stop the war."

 Trump had defended Assad from criticism throughout his campaign for the presidency, describing him as a “natural ally” in the fight against ISIS. But after the April 4 chemical weapons attack, he abruptly changed course, talking about the cruel death of “beautiful babies” asking for “God’s wisdom” and for support from “all civilized nations” to “end the slaughter and bloodshed” as he launched 59 tomahawk missiles.

 But the slaughter and the bloodshed have not stopped. My WhatsApp has buzzed daily with images of destroyed hospitals, and scenes of blood-drenched rubble, and casualties. Every morning I wake up to messages from Idlib with news of yet another attack. Assad seems to be on a hunting spree for hospitals, bombing facilities day after day. April was one the deadliest months for Syrian medical workers since the start of the war. One recent attack leveled a maternity hospital in Kafr Zeta on April 28.

 Even in Western news coverage, Syrian faces or voices are rarely seen beyond the first breaking news. As the stakes for Syrians get higher, and the new administration takes more interest in engagement, it has become more important to listen to what Syrians want. In fact, I would argue the stakes have gotten higher precisely because Syrian civilians have not been brought to the table where decisions are made.

 Even with the lack of follow-up, the strike has raised hopes among many supporters of Syrian opposition. “What Obama couldn’t do for so many years, Trump did in one day. So it shows it is not impossible to take action. You just have to do it,” points out Shadi al-Haj, a 31-year-old Syrian pediatrician who works out of a hospital in al-Ma‘arra, a Syrian town about 33 kilometers from Idlib province. “But we do need a continuous action.”

 Shadi is one of hundreds of doctors still working everyday in nonregime territory, despite the daily bombing. He emphasizes the regime airstrikes specifically hunt civilian targets. “There is nothing here except civilians, families, children. There are no militants, or presence of arms in the rural villages where the bombs come the most. But [Assad] continues to attack people even after the [U.S.] airstrikes,” he says. All this, Shadi emphasizes, sums up to more evidence against Assad and more urgency for the U.N. Security Council and the international community to take action against Assad. “Every day the evidence grows,” he says, quickly pointing out to the urgent; “Every day the most important thing becomes, to keep civilians safer. Civilian safety should be the priority, and that should not be hard for anyone to understand.”

 There is also a rising sense of frustration with the failures of the U.N. Security Council. This is often voiced by the doctors and civil defense volunteers. They believe that international bodies should prioritize the safety of civilians, medical workers and volunteers assisting civilians in Syria, and has not done so. “Hundreds of reports have come out, mission inquiries have revealed details about the condition of civilians and health workers, but the safety of medics and civilians hasn’t gotten better. Violence will expedite if there continues to be no intervention. And that will inevitably overload the capacity of volunteers trying to help,” said Dr. Mohamad Katoub, who works with the Syrian American Medical Society from Gaziantep, Turkey. SAMS has over 100 hospitals across Syria and a staff of nearly 1,700 doctors and health workers.

 Among the dozen Syrian sources I spoke with, their primary demands remain consistent. The first step they say, is to ensure civilian safety by creating safe zones and then to stop Assad. Aref Krez presents a reminder that the revolution began precisely because people wanted freedom from a 17-year-old dictatorship. “Syrian people just want to live in peace, they belong to Syria and would live there. Those who have left will return, if a safe zone is created,” he said. “All armed groups—both rebels and pro-regime—should be given their boundaries, and should be made to remain within their borders.”

 After that, Shadi says, it imperative that Assad be removed. This has been a major point of disagreement between the United States and Assad’s ally Russia, and even opponents of the regime concede that Russia’s cooperation will be necessary. “This can be done,” as Shadi assumes, “with the help of Russia.” Even if Russia has been hand in glove with Assad’s crimes, including the bombing of hospitals, many Syrians believe, as Shadi says. The United States “needs to work with Russia. Many years ago they proposed to take down Assad.” He is referring to 2012, when Russia had proposed a peace deal.

 There may be signs that this is starting to happen. In early May, Russia proposed a ceasefire deal, along Iran and Turkey. The U.S. sent an envoy to the conference in Kazakhstan where the deal was proposed but has not officially weighed in yet. Since the deal came through, the fighting has reduced, but not stopped. Many Syrians will not trust any “safe zones” enforced by Russia and Iran and are disappointed that the U.S. has not followed up its military action last month with any diplomatic commitment this month.

 For Mohammad, the computer engineer, it’s absurd to suggest enforcing a peace deal while bombing is still taking place. “Hama and Damascus are still being bombed, so what kind of deal is this? I don’t trust until I see an actual stop to violence by Russia,” he told me.

 Syria has not been lost, yet. “There is more life here than death. The focus should be to avoid more casualties,” Shadi says. “Those people still alive, need safety. That is why me and my friends stay here.”

 This is why consistent coverage that includes voices of the Syrian people is crucial to informed policy decisions. “Every single time there is an attack someone who was living, is killed. … It is worse than it was in 2014, or 2016 and it can get worse,” says Dr. Ahmad Dbais, who manages training and security for medics in northern side of Syria. “The media should cover every attack to get a full picture of what it looks like to live under regime’s bombing. It should not be about shock value, but about genuinely making solid decisions that will fix the problem. If the peacekeepers and powerful leaders of the world cannot do this, what else is left for them to do.”

 For about a week, I lost touch with Shadi, which was worrying. I tried getting details on every victim I could from sources on the ground, hoping that none of them turned out to be one of the doctors I know. It was not until Friday morning Shadi got back to me again, sounding tense and broken. Two of his friends had been killed in an attack that had barely been covered in the outside media. “[Oh my God] It is so hard to stay alive,” he messaged me.'

Friday, 12 May 2017

Dr. Ted Postol misreads the HRW Report on Khan Sheikhoun

 Clay Claiborne:

 'On the heels of the French Report on the sarin massacre at Khan Sheikhoun on 4 April 2016, Human Rights Watch came out with their own report on May Day, Death by Chemicals: The Syrian Government’s Widespread and Systematic Use of Chemical Weapons. While the HRW report agrees with the basic findings of the White House Report, the French Report, and Syrians on the ground at Khan Sheikhoun, that in the early morning hours of 4 April 2016, a single Syrian air force Su-22 bomber dropped a chemical bomb in a civilian area and a lot of people died, it went further because it documented a pattern of chemical weapons use by the regime that involved at least four chemical attacks in the last six months.

 The HRW Report does go into detail about the Khan Sheikhoun attack, and provides some important new information. In summary it says:
Human Rights Watch interviewed 60 people with first-hand knowledge of the chemical attacks and their immediate aftermath, and reviewed dozens of photos and videos of impact sites and victims that were posted online and provided directly by local residents, but was unable to conduct ground investigations of the attack sites.

Information from local residents in Khan Sheikhoun indicates that a warplane flew over the town twice around 6:45 a.m. on April 4, 2017. One resident said he saw the plane drop a bomb near the town’s central bakery in the northern neighborhood during the first fly-over. Several people, including the person who saw the bomb falling, said they heard no explosion but saw smoke and dust rising from the area, consistent with the relatively small explosive charge in a chemical bomb. Several people also confirmed that they saw people injured or heard reports of injuries immediately after the first fly-over. A few minutes later, they said, a warplane dropped three or four high-explosive bombs on the town.

Human Rights Watch identified 92 people, including 30 children, whom local residents and activists said died due to chemical exposure from this attack. Medical personnel said the attack injured hundreds more.

Human Rights Watch reviewed dozens of photos and videos provided by residents of a crater from the impact of the first bomb. Local residents believed this site was the source of the chemical exposure because those who died lived nearby and people who came near it, including first responders, exhibited the strongest symptoms of chemical exposure. One of the first photos of the crater, taken by first responders, shows what appears to be liquid on the asphalt. That would be consistent with the use of a bomb containing sarin, which is in liquid form at room temperature.
 Doctor Theodore A. Postol, Professor Emeritus of Science, Technology, and National Security Policy, Massachusetts Institute of Technology believes these local residents don't know what they are talking about, or worst, they are part of a deep state conspiracy that involves obviously the White House, as usual, the French, a couple of guys in England, and now apparently also Human Rights Watch. In spite of those odds, his Syrian Sister can rest assured that Dr. Ted is as yet undaunted in his defense of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad. He maintains staunchly that Assad wouldn't hurt a fly, at least not with chemicals, so fresh on the heels of his attack on the French Report, which I critiqued here, he has penned a new attack on the HRW report dated 8 May 2017 and titled The HRW Evidence Disaffirms Its Own Conclusions in Its Report of May 1, 2017.

 In the best journalistic and humanistic traditions, HRW takes upon itself the task of comforting the afflicted and afflicting the comfortable. Now, Dr. Ted can't say that, because when he writes about human rights atrocities it is to comfort the afflicter. He earlier made a name for himself for his pseudo-scientific defense of Assad in the case of the 21 August 2013 sarin murders. In the present case, he is attempting to get Assad off the hook for the sain murders of 4 April 2017. I believe this is his sixth attempt. There were those first three attacks on the easiest target, the White House Report, the first pdf, the addendum, and the Truthdig article, all that claimed the evidence pointed to terrorists setting off a sarin pipe bomb in the street, and not an air strike. Then there was the second Truthdig article that said the Russians might be right about bombing a terrorists arms depot that stored chemical weapons. Then there was the attack on the French Report, and now this attack on the HRW Report. That makes six. If we were to include the Scott Horton show in which Postol attacks Bellingcat, Elliot Higgins, and Dan Kaszeta, that would make seven.

 You will notice that HRW never says that a KhAB-250 or KhAB-500 was dropped on Khan Sheikhoun. They did use those for purpose of comparison, "similar" - their word, because both have the green markings for chemical weapons, but not the same, because the green markings are different. They definitely say that the available evidence "suggest that the Syrian warplane dropped a factory-made sarin bomb," and they do point to KhAB-250 and KhAB-500 as publicly known examples of such weapons from this very secret world. Of course we have no way of knowing what variants of these old designs, or even completely new designs for "a factory-made sarin bomb," the Assad regime may have come up with. The North Vietnamese became famous for re-engineering the Soviet and Chinese anti-aircraft rockets to get more range out of them than anyone thought possible. That is something else Postol should consider when he is promoting his 2km limit as the reason Assad couldn't possibly have done the people in Ghouta with sarin in 2013. 

 Reading comprehension is thus the core problem with Postol's critique of the HRW report. He says:
The HRW claim that their analysis shows that this “standard” Russian munition was the source of the sarin release is therefore unsupported by the observed evidence they put forward. Put in other words, the HRW report does not contain any basic forensic evidence to support its claim that a standard Russian munition was the source of a sarin release at the crater.
 But the HRW Report does not claim that "a standard Russian munition" was used. It only cites those as examples. The HRW report did conclude "a factory-made sarin bomb," was used. Since the focus of Postol's critique is that HRW never proved claims it never made, all his charts and diagrams miss the point. He could have better spent his time improving his reading skills.

 There is one place where he tries to clean up a bent position that I must address, however. In a number of his previous defense briefs on the Khan Sheikhoun sarin massacre, Dr. Postol referenced a video that show workers taking samples from the crater some 30 hrs. after the attack, and said that if it was really sarin, they would be dead. A number of his critics, including me, pointed out that sarin was a low persistence nerve agent. It would be gone in 60 minutes or less. His obvious ignorance on this point must have been an embarrassment to him, so in this latest piece he tries to clean that up a bit. In this new piece he says:
Since the evaporation rate from the saturated soil would be slow relative to sarin deposited on the flat surrounding road surface, the area in and around the crater could have easily been highly toxic for 5 to 10 or more hours after the impact. During this period it would have not been possible for “White Hats” without hazmat protective equipment to dig inside the crater or linger in the immediate area around the crater, as observed in videos.

 Since he had previously identified the videos as being taken 30 hrs. after the attack, there is little point in arguing his thesis that soil under the road surface could have "easily been highly toxic for 5 or 10 or more hours" to people that "linger in the immediate area." Although he had previously correctly identified the sample collectors in the video as being from the Idlib Health Directorate, now he calls them "White Hats." This smells like an attempt to get extra mileage out of the tar brush that has been used against a different group, the White Helmets. Denigrating anyone who comes to the aid of the victims is central to the work of the holocaust enabler.

 While Postol demands exacting evidence that meets his high standards from those he is criticizing, he offers wild statements without anything like a shred of evidence as the premise for his conclusions. For example he says:
Given that there is substantial evidence that groups other than the Syrian government possess sarin precursors, indications of sarin poisoning do not alone indicate that the Syrian government was the source of the sarin, assuming the observed medical effects were from sarin.
 Yes, assuming the French, the Turkish and the OPCW, weren't all conspiring together to "independently" find that samples tested positively for sarin, what proof is there that groups other than the Syrian government has sarin precursors beyond rubbing alcohol, or that even if in possession of all the necessary precursors, could  formulate sarin? None is offered. After all, I can get plenty of coal but I can't make diamonds.

 Postol offers this assertion about the widespread possession of sarin precursors, again without proof in this "Summary and Conclusions," and it is there that we find out what he really thinks. He starts out by acknowledging that whatever happened was a crime against humanity, and then immediately jumps into what I would call the "who didn't do it mode," in which you work to exonerate the most obvious killer. This is another thing that shows Postol and others of his ilk act like defense council for Assad rather than prosecutors for the people. If they were representing the people, and believed Assad didn't do it, they still should have pursued the "case of 2013" until the "real killer" was convicted or at least identified. That is how prosecutors prevent crimes from recurring. Defense counsels don't worry about that. After their guy gets off, they go home. Recurring crime is only their problem if their guy is being charged again.

 This is why we are again hearing Postol et al speak out in Assad's defense. Bear in mind that Assad is most certainly a mass murderer many times over even if he can be acquitted in this particular case: 
There can be no doubt that using any form of murderous weapon, chemicals or otherwise, against innocent civilians and children constitute crimes against humanity.

It is also clear that there are multiple groups in Syria who have, or who have had access to the precursor chemicals needed to produce sarin. There is substantial evidence that the nerve agent attack of August 21, 2017 in Damascus might not have been executed by the Syrian government.
 The future date of "August 21, 2017" is obviously a mistake, but it is Postol's mistake. Maybe Dr. Ted has problems with proofreading comprehension as well? He means 2013. Even after the United Nations said the sarin used in Damascus on 21 August 2013 came from "the chemical weapons stockpile of the Syrian military," he is still arguing Assad's innocent. His thesis would mean that opposition groups possess sarin and have used it twice against their own civilians, in 2013 and now in 2017, but never once used it in battle against Assad's forces.

 In the case of the 2013 attack, Assad and most of his supporters, including Postol, argued that the opposition had a motive for gassing its own people. They said that because Obama had made this "red-line" pledge to intervene militarily if CW was used; they faked this attack so that he would intervene. It wasn't a very good "motive" then. Now it is a terrible one, but that doesn't stop Dr. Ted from raising it:
Human Rights Watch should have considered the possibility that at least some of these attacks could be perpetrated by groups who are interested in manipulating the United States into taking military actions that would support their political and military objectives against the Syrian government.
 Really? Most of those attacks were done by aircrafts and those groups don't have them. Does HRW have a duty to entertain Dr. Ted's fantasies? Because if that was a thin thread in 2013, it is a gossamer one in 2017. Why would anyone stage a false flag attack that killed less than a hundred in the hopes of getting Trump to intervene against Assad right after he has announced a new more pro-Assad US policy, when the sarin deaths of over a thousand didn't prompt Obama to enforce his own red-line four years ago?

 The French Report actually had a section on "the presence of armed groups in Hama and of their capabilities," but Dr. Ted chose to ignore it. He said the French Report didn't have any "details" like this:
Neither do the French services assess that the theory of a staged attack or manipulation by the opposition is credible, particularly because of the massive influx in a very limited time towards hospitals in Syria and Turkey, and the simultaneous, massive uploading of videos showing symptoms of the use of neurotoxic agents. 
 Postol accuses HRW of encouraging groups to continue murdering innocent civilians and children in pursuit of US military intervention:
If this is the case, Human Rights Watch could be inadvertently encouraging these groups to continue murdering innocent civilians and children in pursuit of this objective.
 I appreciate his logic, because even if Assad were somehow innocent of one or more chemical attacks, he clearly is guilty of the majority of the carnage in Syria. So what should we call those who come out to defend Assad whenever his mass murders get media attention, but holocaust enablers?

 The next paragraph gives us his bottom line on the Syrian conflict. There is no just and moral side. There is no people's side in Syria. They are all bad people committing atrocities. No reason to single out the Assad Regime:
It is not foreseeable that when multiple groups are all engaged in routine wartime atrocities that one of the groups will suddenly transform itself into a moral and just winner while all the others would surely continue their monstrous behavior.

 Clearly, he knows nothing of the history of Syria, its people, or this revolution. One of the groups is still the millions of Syrians that started this upheaval in 2011 by demanding an end to the fascist 40+ year old Assad dictatorship, and refusing to take "no" for an answer. They are still refusing to take "no" for an answer. That is the reason Assad is dropping sarin bombs on them. Those that still argue, as they did in 2013, that "Assad has almost won," don't understand the fight, because after all this carnage, Assad has still not forced them to accept his "no" for an answer. They didn't have to suddenly transform themselves into a moral and just cause, they have been that all along.'

Thursday, 11 May 2017

A British Baroness Wants To Rekindle Donald Trump’s Affection For Bashar Assad

 'Lady Caroline Cox, a prominent member of the British Parliament’s House of Lords, agrees with President Donald Trump on quite a lot: the need for Brexit, the success of Russia’s brutal counterterrorism strategy, the theory that some Muslims are pushing an insidious effort to undermine Western democracy from within, and the idea that the traditional media is biased because of political correctness.

 She just wishes he still agreed with her on another matter: Syrian President Bashar Assad.

 Cox met with Assad for about two hours last fall during a visit to regime-held areas of Syria. She believes that most Syrians want to keep the dictator in power and that Assad himself seeks to turn his family’s repressive 45-year regime into a democracy. Now she’s in Washington ― and she’s hoping that Trump, who repeatedly praised Assad and raised hopes in the Damascus government, will come around.

 “Of course, no one wants to belittle [Assad’s] track record. I’m not here to be an apologist. But I’m here to say where it is now in Syria, according to the Syrian people,” Cox said at a National Press Club event Tuesday. “He’s quite loved by many of the people of Syria ― obviously not the people who’ve suffered at his hands … [they say] let Assad stay and take Syria into freedom from [the so-called Islamic State] and freedom from Islamist terrorism and then talk about the future.”

 Echoing supporters of the Assad regime in the U.S. and elsewhere, Cox questioned whether the dictator was really responsible for an April 4 chemical weapons attack that the U.S., France and others say they are sure he committed. Those who see the dictator as a potential partner claim it would have been foolish for him to use nerve gas when he seemed stronger than ever ― and Trump has repeatedly expressed such thinking in private, according to Politico. (Syria experts say the extreme move was actually classic Assad, designed to overwhelm his opponents and prove to them that he can do as he pleases with no consequences.)

 “I was obviously disappointed by the change between what I had perceived as Trump’s position before and then his recent … extremely unfortunate intervention following that as yet highly problematic chemical weapons incident,” Cox told HuffPost, referring to the president’s decision to launch an American military strike against a Syrian government airfield on April 6.

 A former member of the Conservative Party and now an independent, she hopes to share her perspective with the administration and Capitol Hill. An aide claimed she had meetings set up with the White House, other parts of the administration and senators. (Members of the House are back in their districts this week.)

 But her schedule remains largely a mystery. A State Department official told HuffPost the agency’s Bureau of Near Eastern Affairs was not scheduled to meet with the baroness, and two Senate offices said they had not heard about her visit. The offices of two lawmakers who share her sympathy for the Assad regime’s presentation of events, Reps. Tulsi Gabbard (D-Hawaii) and Tom Garrett (R-Va.), said they had not been in touch with Cox either. And the White House did not respond to a request for comment about the alleged meetings.

 Still, Cox’s trip shows that pro-Assad lobbying is alive and well in the West even after Trump’s turnaround ― and that it’s being packaged to appeal to the current U.S. political scene, where fear of Islam is driving official state policy more than ever before.

 The baroness spent much of her Tuesday press conference repeating the regime’s claim that all alternatives to Assad are dangerous fanatics. In fact, the opposition to Assad grew out of peaceful protests by ordinary citizens in 2011 that the government responded to with bullets, and the regime deliberately released extremists from jail and avoided fighting radical groups so it could portray the entire opposition as irredeemable. Many anti-Assad groups have now become associated with Islamists, including the local affiliate of al Qaeda, but experts believe they could be wooed out of that relationship if they received strong Western backing. (Despite claims abroad that the U.S. and other nations have been supporting military “regime change” for years, Western aid to the armed opposition has been tightly limited and U.S. officials have repeatedly said they have held the rebels back from too forcefully challenging Assad.)

 Meanwhile, humanitarian groups and rights activists say the regime continues to be responsible for most ongoing deaths and alleged war crimes in Syria. Political figures who say Assad is the “solution,” then, must be worried about a different problem ― not the mass brutality, but the fact that the other side appears to be more religiously inclined.

 Cox also echoed the regime argument that Assad is a defender of religious minorities, particularly Christians, and of women. “He’s very happy to have a country in which a lady in a bikini can be alongside a lady in a [body-covering] burka [veil] and that’s their choice,” she said. Of course, Assad’s top emissary to negotiations with rebels challenging his rule last year said he would not speak with a counterpart who had a beard, claiming that was a mark of Islamic extremism. That kind of assertion is popular among authoritarians in the Middle East ― with “war on terror” rhetoric dominating the global conversation, they know their best bet is to play on worries about Islamist extremism.

 Meanwhile, Assad’s own forces have worked closely for years with sectarian fighters. Militants aligned with Iran and the Lebanese group Hezbollah cite religious loyalties to target communities following different faiths, like adherents to the Sunni school of Islam.

 In Britain, Cox is well-known for inciting fear about Islam. She invited the far-right Dutch figure Geert Wilders, who sees Islam as a totalitarian ideology rather than a religion, to the House of Lords in 2010. For years, she has pushed legislation seeking to rein in advisory courts that Muslims can voluntarily approach to help settle family issues; while she rightfully notes that people in the community, often women, can unfairly be forced to use that system, observers say Cox’s presentation of the facts can veer into exaggeration and bigotry. Her own rhetoric has only helped her critics: In 2014, Cox said, “Islam is using the freedoms of democracy to destroy it.”

 The baroness says troubling practices she claims Islam promotes are ignored by the media and enabled by British officials too concerned about cultural sensitivity. That’s one reason, she told reporters Tuesday, that she frequently appears on television stations associated with the government of Russia, which supports Assad’s apparently moderate regime and which Islam skeptics say is more frank about the apparent threat to Western traditions.

 In ways, she said, “Russian TV is much more balanced than the BBC.” '

The Dictator's Team

Image result for The Dictator's Team

 'On a cool February afternoon, one of Syria's greatest soccer players sits outside a mall on the Persian Gulf, paralyzed by a decision that he fears could kill him.

 For five years, Firas al-Khatib has boycotted the Syrian national team to protest dictator Bashar al-Assad, who bombed and starved Khatib's hometown.

 Now, suddenly, Khatib seems to be having a change of heart. He is thinking about rejoining Syria for its final push to qualify for next year's World Cup. His reasons are complicated, and he's reluctant to express them.

 "I'm afraid, I'm afraid," he says in stilted English. "In Syria now, if you talk, somebody will kill you -- for what you talk, for what you think. Not for what you do. They will kill you for what you think."

 Khatib is bearded and runty, with curly brown hair and kind eyes. He has earned millions playing professionally in Kuwait. The mall's posh setting offers a glimpse into his comfortable life here -- yachts bobbing on scalloped blue water, robed men and women drawing flavored tobacco from tableside water pipes. But Khatib seems nearly crushed by the weight of his dilemma, which he discusses over two days of interviews. "Every day before I sleep, maybe one hour, two hours, just thinking about this decision."

 Khatib pulls out his phone to show his Facebook page, which receives a hundred messages a day. Even some of his closest friends are ready to turn on him. One player he grew up with, Nihad Saadeddine, says if Khatib returns to Syria he'll be relegated to "the garbage bin of history along with everyone who supports the criminal Bashar al-Assad." Saadeddine vows never to speak to Khatib again.

 Sometime within the next 36 days, when Syria plays its next match, Khatib must choose between two great evils that plague the modern world.

 If he rejoins Syria, he will be team captain and the most important player in his country's quest to make the World Cup for the first time. He will also represent a government that -- along with nerve gas, torture, rape, starvation and the bombing of civilians -- has used soccer as a weapon to promote its murderous rule.

 If he continues his boycott, he'll be aligned with a complicated movement that began with peaceful demonstrations and has since splintered to include al-Qaida and ISIS. ISIS has used soccer as a backdrop for some of its most heinous crimes, including the 2015 bombings at the Stade de France and a 2016 bombing at a youth soccer match in Iraq that killed 29 children.

 "Now, in Syria, many killers, not just one or two," Khatib says. "And I hate all of them."

 He's at a loss.

 "Whatever happen, 12 million Syrians will love me," he says. "Other 12 million will want to kill me."

 FIFA has essentially adopted the position of the Assad regime, which maintains that Syria's national team is politically neutral. Dabbas, the Syrian businessman who serves as head of the delegation, says the team's primary goal, beyond qualifying for the World Cup, is "to bring all Syrians together" and "prove to the world that Syria is fine, that Syria has a pulse." The team represents "all of Syria."

 But Dabbas makes it clear that Syria is playing for "our president" and is loyal to Assad. "Any Syrian inside Syria represents President Bashar Assad, and His Excellency President Dr. Bashar Assad represents us. We are proud of our president. We are proud of what he's achieved. And we want to send him our regards and thanks for what he has done for Syria, and we are behind him and under his leadership."

 Assad, according to Dabbas, watches every game and is "following the most minute details of the team."

 There are numerous signs, in fact, that the Syrian national team represents not a unified vision of Syria but the benign face of a ruthless dictatorship. In November 2015 in Singapore, the head coach, a player and the team spokesman showed up to a prematch news conference wearing T-shirts bearing Assad's photo. In comments widely circulated among Syrian refugees, the coach, Fajer Ebrahim, used the World Cup platform to proclaim Assad the "best man in the world."

 Ebrahim, who is not coaching the team in the third round of World Cup qualifying, began an interview with ESPN in Kuala Lumpur by launching into an impromptu speech in praise of Assad. "We know our president is the right man, and a very, very great man," he said. "Without our president, Syria is destroyed."

 Asked about the appropriateness of using World Cup competition to make political statements, Ebrahim replied: "Everything is linked now. Everything's related."

 Given the pressures inside Syria, where thousands of people have been tortured and killed for opposing Assad, it's difficult to assess the candor of those affiliated with the team and what their allegiances are. Anas Ammo, the well-connected former sports writer who has documented human rights crimes against Syrian athletes, works as a sports agent in Mersin, Turkey. He says some players on the national team have family members who were detained or killed by the regime. "They are basically forced to play, otherwise they may kill their relatives," says Ammo, requesting that the players' names remain private to protect them and their families. Ammo says he knows of two national team members who play out of fear that the government, which controls their travel documents, will withhold their passports, making it impossible for them to play abroad. Other players, Ammo says, are loyal to Assad.

 Ammo believes that if players were granted control over their passports, a large number would defect.

 On the other side of the world is an alternate reality.

 One freezing, rainy afternoon in February, two dozen Syrian refugees cram into the visitors locker room of SV Buchholz, an amateur sports club that plays on a lower rung of German soccer called the Bezirksliga. The one-story building, narrow and gray, is tucked into a residential side street in northeast Berlin. Behind it is the soccer field. One by one, the Syrians fish their green jerseys out of a rumpled paper bag. Syria's revolutionary flag -- three red stars superimposed over green, white and black horizontal bands -- is taped over the window.

 At least two of these "Free Syria" teams have competed in exhibition matches in Turkey and Germany. The teams, which include veterans of the Syrian Premier League, are part of a Syrian refugee population that has swelled to nearly 6 million -- roughly the population of Massachusetts. The team in Germany represents "the people who have been oppressed by the regime," including "martyred athletes who gave their lives for the country," says the coach, Nihad Saadeddine. "This team, God willing, will be the official representative of Free Syria."

 The players from SV Buchholz arrive one by one, nonchalant and carefree. Electronic music pulsates from their locker room, making it feel as if the entire building has a heartbeat. They are mostly blond and fit, as if they emerged from a German travel brochure. The Syrians, even in their new uniforms, seem disheveled and broken, a collection of game individuals who have come together for a cause. "The players who are here, there are a large number who were injured or detained," Saadeddine says. The coach is 35 but looks 10 years older, with thinning dark hair and haunted eyes. A longtime midfielder in Syria, he can no longer play. During the government's siege of Homs, Saadeddine says he was shot in the knee by a sniper, then essentially crushed when a mortar struck behind a wall as he was evacuating women and children from an apartment building. When he arrived in Austria, where he lives now, doctors discovered five cracked vertebrae.

 Saadeddine gives his locker room pep talk: "Guys, we have a cause, and I hope everyone will be up to the task -- to demonstrate to people the criminality of this regime, what they have done to athletes and the detainees; It's our obligation to talk about them. ... We need to have our voices heard, that we stand together to expose this regime to the world, that there is a revolution and that there are free athletes. When you say you are on the team of Free Syria, you are representing millions."

 One of the Free Syria players, Jaber al-Kurdi, was detained by the regime in 2013 in the city of Hama, where he played for a team called Taliya. Kurdi says he supported the opposition but never fired a gun. "Do you think these hands could carry a weapon?" he says, turning up pink palms. "A girl's hand is bigger than mine." Kurdi says he attended protests and provided clothing and shelter for the displaced: "I don't like blood or bloodshed, but when I saw people arriving in Hama and sleeping outside in the parks and streets, I couldn't just stand and watch."

 Human Rights Watch has described Assad's vast prison network as "a torture archipelago." Kurdi says he was held for nine months without trial, shuttled between detention centers in Hama, Homs and Damascus. At the "Palestine" branch of the Military Intelligence Directorate in Damascus, guards repeatedly beat the soles of his feet with a rubber hose and shocked him through electric wires attached to his skull. For a week, he says, he was confined in a narrow ceramic pen, unable to sit and barely able to move. "It's cold, and they would come in and throw water on me and leave," Kurdi says. He says he was let out for five minutes a day to relieve himself and that he occasionally received pieces of stale bread pushed through the door.

 The 25-year-old has soft features, a three-day beard and dark shadows beneath his eyes. At the end of his incarceration, he says, he was brought before a military judge, who ordered him released. As the guard handed him his belongings -- an empty wallet -- he grabbed Kurdi's hand and sliced his index finger with a knife.

 "That's so you'll remember us," the guard told him, says Kurdi, holding up a thin scar.

 Since arriving in Germany, Kurdi says he's been treated for recurring nightmares in which he sees Syrian security agents chasing him through the bombed-out streets of Hama.

 "My heart aches, I swear to God," he says, breaking down during an interview. "I'm not happy here. The German government took us in and gave us safety and security. We appreciate that, but psychologically, we're not happy. Our people are being slaughtered."

 Another Free Syria player, Basel Hawa, says he was caught plotting his defection from the Syrian army after concluding: "We're killing our own people." He says he was held for two months in a small cell with 12 detainees who had to defecate in a hole in the floor. Hawa says he was released after Assad granted a limited amnesty in 2014. He eventually fled to Germany.

 One player comes up in nearly every conversation with the Free Syria team, but he is not here in Berlin. Jihad Qassab was a retired midfielder in his early 40s who starred for Karama, the professional team in Homs. Why Qassab was arrested, on Aug. 19, 2014, is not clear. There's never been a trial.

 Qassab's family and friends believe he was taken to Sednaya Military Prison, the heart of darkness of Assad's torture archipelago. One former detainee told Amnesty International that guards segregate weaker prisoners and force larger ones to rape them. There were constant beatings with pipes, shredded tank treads and hooked cables designed to tear away flesh. Sednaya contains an underground execution chamber consisting of two platforms and dozens of nooses, according to Amnesty International, which called Sednaya "a human slaughterhouse." Amnesty estimates that up to 13,000 Syrians were subjected to a policy of "extermination" over a four-year period at the prison.

 Last September, more than two years after Qassab disappeared, it was announced that he was dead. The mosques in Homs were the first to report the news, then social media, the Syrian Network for Human Rights and news wires around the world. There were no other details.

 "If Jihad lived in another country, he would have been honored and rewarded for his long history of achievements in sports," says Mohamed Hameed, a former Karama player and a close friend of Qassab's. "In Syria, under Assad, he gets detained and tortured."

 Qassab's body was never recovered, according to his friends, and some are convinced he might be alive. Rashad Shamma, an old friend, held a small ceremony for Qassab in front of his candy shop in Saudi Arabia.

 It's a measure of Syria's twisted reality that a star like Qassab can disappear, be pronounced dead and have a service held for him yet Shamma can still say matter-of-factly: "He might be dead or alive. Who knows?"

 Fadi Dabbas, the vice president of the Syrian Football Association, first told ESPN that he knew nothing about Qassab's fate and had never heard of him: "I do not know of this name at all," Dabbas said. When it was pointed out that Qassab played in the Syrian Premier League for over a decade, he said: "I don't know where he went after he left Karama. I don't know what happened. I have no information about this subject."

 Despite the symbolism, Free Syria's match against SV Buchholz ends in a 5-2 defeat for the Syrians, under a cold and steady rain, in front of a few dozen Germans who straggle in on a Sunday afternoon to watch their friends and relatives play a curious exhibition.

 Given the circumstances, the match is both heroic and uncomfortable to watch. The Syrians score first on a beautiful cross. But by the second half, the Germans -- better conditioned and blessed with normal lives that allow them to practice regularly (the Syrians came together for the first time the day before) -- blast away at the goal. One hard shot hits a Syrian defender square in the face, leaving him motionless on the ground for several minutes before he walks off gingerly.

 The Free Syrians present themselves as an alternative to the national team sponsored by Assad. But more than anything, the exhibition against SV Buchholz shows that it isn't that -- not even close. There is only one Team Syria, and the players who are good enough to make it must decide for themselves what it represents.

 In July 2012, when Firas al-Khatib announced he would no longer play for Syria, his hometown, Homs, was in flames. The west-central city, once Syria's third largest, is known as the "capital of the revolution." The previous year, when peaceful protests against Assad's authoritarian government spread across the country, thousands of Homs residents took to the streets. As he did in other cities, Assad responded with overwhelming force. The government's response to the nationwide protests triggered a civil war that now features a bizarre cauldron of global superpowers, foreign terrorists, warlords, militias and freedom fighters.

 Assad's scorched-earth campaign in Homs included rape and starvation -- some residents ate grass to survive, according to witnesses and opposition activists. Massacres were reported in which witnesses saw Assad forces round up and kill civilians.

 Khatib is one of Homs' most prominent citizens and one of Syria's most famous athletes -- a national star since his teens. He left the country in the early 2000s to play professionally in Belgium, China and, for more than a decade, Kuwait, where he broke the league's career scoring record. Khatib used his soccer earnings to help build a street in Homs -- Al Khatib Street -- complete with a soccer field and a mosque that also bears the family name. Despite the millions he earned playing abroad, he always came home to represent Syria. "To play for national team, it's 24 million watch you, 24 million support you to win," he says.

 Khatib's boycott, announced at a rally in Kuwait City, was a blow to Assad. Draped in a sash with the revolution colors, Khatib told the screaming crowd: "Here in front of the media, I want to say that I will never play for the Syrian national team as long as there are bombs falling anywhere in Syria."

 One man lifted Khatib onto his shoulders. The crowd addressed him as Abu Hamza, an affectionate nickname meaning "Father of Hamza," his oldest son.

 "God bless you, Abu Hamza! God bless you!"

 Khatib plays for Kuwait Sporting Club, his fourth team in Kuwait. Standing on the sideline of his home stadium one afternoon in February, he struggles to explain how he could think about representing Syria again, given his previous stance and the atrocities the government continues to inflict on the civilian population.

 "What happened is very complicated," he says. "I can't talk more about these things. Sorry, sorry, I'm very sorry. Better for me, better for my country, better for my family, better for everybody if I not talk about that."

 For other players, representing Assad is an unthinkable betrayal.

 One is Firas al-Ali.

 "I saw Syria as paradise on earth," says Ali, a former defender on the national team.

 But he's no longer in Syria, and this isn't paradise.

 The Karkamis Refugee Camp resembles a low-slung prison. Perched on Turkey's southern border with Syria, the camp is surrounded by gray walls and barbed wire and is controlled by the Turkish government. The 6,886 occupants (including 1,963 children) are free to leave, if only they had somewhere to go and the means to get there.

 Ali once owned three houses. Now all his belongings are stuffed into a large white tent, one of hundreds erected symmetrically on the sun-baked earth. Ali's tent is no bigger or smaller than his neighbors', but inside it's immaculate and formal. White lace curtains line the canvas walls, and an Oriental rug covers the wood foundation. Floral-patterned cushions form a U-shaped sitting area. A small silver teapot rests atop a hot plate, and there's even a 13-inch TV and a mini fridge. Ali, 31, his wife and three children have lived at Karkamis for three years. His young daughter, Aysha, was born here.

 Ali has dark hair that sweeps across his forehead and the willowy grace of a pro athlete. For close observers of Syrian soccer, his predicament is difficult to comprehend, a star athlete left to live among his fans in tent housing. Ali played for Shorta, one of the top teams in Damascus, earning $125,000 a season, a fortune in Syria. More important, he represented Syria. "From 23 million people, I was one of the 20 best players in my country," he says. "I was famous and recognized wherever I went. My material situation was excellent. I had a good family and a good reputation. I never thought of even taking a step outside my country."

 Now he's a refugee, his family's needs met by the Turkish Disaster and Emergency Management Authority.

 Ali says he would rather live in a refugee camp than play for Syria. In 2011, when Assad's forces attacked Hama, his hometown, Ali's 19-year-old cousin Abdullah, a college geography student, was shot and killed during a protest. "The bullet struck his eye and came out of his head," Ali says. Later, a barrel bomb -- a gas-filled oil drum the regime has heaved from helicopters by the thousands -- fell through the roof of a house and incinerated his niece as she stood in her kitchen. Ali says he arrived a few minutes later. "To see a human being cut to pieces, it's a nightmare," he says. "She was almost 200 pounds; she was heavily built. We couldn't find her." Ali joined the protests, covering his face because he was so recognizable. He felt he was leading a double life: challenging Assad in the streets and representing him on the field.

 One morning Ali showed up for practice at Abbasiyyin Stadium in Damascus and found that it had been converted into a military base. "We had half of the stadium, and the 4th Division [of the Syrian Army] had the other half. This I saw with my own eyes! There was artillery in places meant for athletes. They would go out to suppress the demonstrations from the stadium that I was practicing in. I'd hear gunfire from inside the stadium. And the demonstrators still didn't have weapons. The only ones who carried weapons at that time were the regime."

 The national team's head coach was Fajer Ebrahim, the Assad loyalist who later wore a T-shirt with the president's picture before a World Cup qualifying match. Ebrahim spoke openly about the need to crush the protests, Ali says. By winning games, Ebrahim told the players, Syria would show the world that the uprising was having little effect. The players were divided: "We were destroying ourselves," Ali says. He felt increasingly demoralized, his effort on the field diminished "because I was so distracted. Friends were dying, relatives were dying."

 Ali sometimes stayed at the Blue Tower Hotel, a four-star hotel on Hamra Street in Damascus. One sleepless night, he says, he watched in horror from his eighth-floor window as the government shelled civilian neighborhoods around the city. "It was as though I was watching an action movie on television," he says. "It was terrifying."

 Another night, while the national team was training for a tournament in India, Ali got a call that his 13-year-old cousin, Alaa, had been killed during a government attack in a village outside Hama. Thirty minutes later, he joined the national team for dinner. When one of his teammates mocked the protesters, Ali says he hurled a spoon at him before teammates pulled them apart. Ali returned to his room and called his family.

 "I'm done," he told his sister.

 "What do you mean?" she responded.

 "I don't want to play for them, ever," he replied.

 He arranged for two of his brothers to pick him up at 5:30 the following morning. From there, Ali sped off to rebel-held territories, waved through at checkpoints, he says, by soldiers who recognized him as a famous athlete but were unaware he was fleeing the regime. He crossed the border into Turkey with his young family. Ali was free, but suddenly he had new challenges. "I had money in the bank, and after I defected, the regime took it," he says. "I had three houses, and they were destroyed. ... I had a plot of land, it's gone. ... It was just like all my money went."

 As he describes his transformation, Ali sits in what passes for a mall at Karkamis: a row of plywood stalls that sells everything from food to canned goods to cookware to generators. One of the vendors brings over platters of grilled meats, and Ali ducks inside one of the stalls -- a cramped hardware store -- to avoid the flies that descend on the food. His days revolve around teaching soccer to children, who flock to him like a camp celebrity. In the late morning, as the sun cuts through the desert haze, Ali and three dozen kids gather on a concrete slab strewn with broken glass to stretch, run laps and scrimmage. Occasionally the ball finds its way to Ali, who manipulates it with the practiced dexterity of his former life.

 "It's hard, but I don't regret anything at all," he says. "How would one feel who is playing under this flag and carrying a picture of the person who is the sole reason for the killing and the death and the expulsion of more than 7 million Syrians?"

 Can the national team really serve as a peaceful oasis, a place for Syrians to come together? Or is it another weapon for Assad to project normalcy and legitimize his authority?

 Anas Ammo has pondered this question at length. His answer was to begin building a sports human rights case against the Syrian government. Ammo saw the project as his way to serve the opposition. He began five years ago, when he realized that athletes were among the most prominent victims of Assad's brutality and that the government was using soccer, Ammo's lifelong passion, as a propaganda tool. With dozens of athletes dead and thousands more living as refugees, Ammo believes that "a whole generation of football in Syria has disappeared."

 In Mersin, Ammo operates out of a sparsely furnished two-room office with a distant view of the Mediterranean. He fled here from Aleppo, where he worked as a sports writer for Syria's Al-Watan newspaper and as a volunteer public relations official with Ittihad, the city's premier soccer club. He was working with Ittihad in 2011, he says, when the government began to compel players to attend pro-Assad demonstrations. Former players told ESPN that such orders were common. "The players were very angry at them for forcing them to go out," Ammo says. "I really felt sad when I saw sports used like this."

 As the civil war escalated, the military began to use stadiums in Damascus, Aleppo, Hama, Homs and other cities as bases and detention facilities, according to former players, human rights monitors and videos taken by activists. Two videos, for example, appear to show rockets being fired from the field at Abbasiyyin Stadium in Damascus, the same facility that Firas al-Ali said players were forced to share with the Syrian Army.

 Fadi Dabbas, the vice president of the Syrian Football Association and head of delegation for the national team, described the allegations as false, telling ESPN that stadiums were "never used for military reasons." He blamed Western media, which he called biased.

 FIFA's statutes, which govern organizations such as the Syrian Football Association, states that "each member shall manage its affairs independently and with no influence from third parties." FIFA has invoked the independence clause at least 24 times over the past decade, resulting in 20 suspensions from international play, in response to activity the organization perceived as government interference. In 2009, for example, FIFA suspended Iraq after learning that the government had disbanded the Iraqi Football Association and sent security agents to take control of its headquarters. In 2014, FIFA suspended Nigeria after the government dissolved the leadership of the Nigerian Football Federation after the World Cup team's disappointing finish in Brazil.

 Ammo believed that the violence against players, the exploitation of teams for propaganda purposes and the use of stadiums for military purposes constituted a violation of FIFA statutes. By failing to act against Syria, Ammo believed, FIFA was "an accomplice to all the crimes that have been committed against the football players and the damage that has been inflicted on the stadiums and sports facilities."

 Ammo emailed the information to a former player named Ayman Kasheet. A veteran of the Premier League, Kasheet was living in Sweden, where he had been granted residency, and was in close proximity to FIFA's headquarters in Zurich.

 Kasheet travelled to Zurich to confront FIFA in August 2014. Turned away at the entrance, he decided that to have any influence he needed to assemble a full report. He took a course offered by Amnesty International on how to document human rights violations. The result was a 20-page "complaint" that built on Ammo's work, filed on behalf of "more than 2,000 athletes ... separated from the Syrian Football Federation."

 Kasheet wrote the complaint in English, one of FIFA's four official languages. The document is both ungrammatical and to the point. He cites "war crimes committed by government forces in Syria against the football players and football stadiums, and the silence of the Syrian Football Federation about these crimes ... ." The complaint includes a table of 10 players believed to be in government detention and provides photos for nine. Other tables list 11 under-18 players and 20 over-18 players allegedly killed by government forces. Another section shows photos and videos of stadiums occupied by Syrian forces.

 Kasheet says he tried to email the information to FIFA but received no response. He returned to Zurich and dropped off the document at the front desk, but again he heard nothing.

 In August 2015, Kasheet returned to FIFA headquarters, this time with an interpreter who helped him film the encounter. After haggling with a receptionist, Kasheet ultimately spoke with Alexander Koch, FIFA's corporate communications manager.

 "He says it would be so much appreciated if FIFA would follow up with the document because the only way to [apply] pressure is through FIFA because FIFA is the umbrella of this federation," the interpreter tells Koch in the video.

 Koch looks mildly perturbed.

 "The problem that I see is that this is nothing against ... football," Koch says.

 Koch tells Kasheet that he should file his complaint with the Syrian Football Association, which can then lodge a complaint with FIFA. Kasheet tries to make Koch understand that his complaint is against the Syrian Football Association, which is supported by the Assad government.

 "How can you ask the football federation to submit an official complaint when the case is being made against the Syrian Football Federation?" Kasheet later tells ESPN. "It is clear and obvious that the Syrian Football Federation is part of the government. No one would believe otherwise."

 One month later, Kasheet received an email from FIFA deputy secretary general Markus Kattner, reiterating that the matter is beyond FIFA's control.

 "FIFA fully supports any effort aiming to ensure that all athletes are able to enjoy practicing the game of football in a violence-free environment and we thank you for your initiative," wrote Kattner, who would end up fired for financial misconduct while serving as FIFA's finance director. Kattner added that the circumstances described in the report go "far beyond" sports.

 Kasheet was crushed. "Shame on FIFA," he says during a tearful interview with ESPN in Helsingborg. "I wasn't asking FIFA to make a decision immediately. I was asking FIFA to investigate. If it's not accurate, they can ignore the information and just say no."

 ESPN sought to interview FIFA officials about Syria and its national team, but FIFA declined the request. A spokesman sent a statement similar to the one sent to Kasheet: "Over recent years, FIFA has been made aware of allegations by several parties -- often contradicting information according to different sources -- concerning violence that has affected the practice of football in the country. While we fully understand the tragic circumstances surrounding those events, as a sport governing body we also realize that these alleged actions go far beyond the domain of sporting matters in a situation where the whole country is mired in civil war."

 FIFA is prevented from acting because of "the limits of our jurisdiction and capacity to verify any allegations in such a complex setting," according to the statement.

 Mark Afeeva, the London-based sports attorney who has written about how FIFA applies its independence statutes, said the evidence against Syria far surpasses other cases, including Nigeria, that have led FIFA to act. "In any other context, FIFA would be almost eager to get involved," Afeeva says.

 Afeeva says FIFA "has clearly taken the view that it's in its interests to not get involved" in a political crisis that involves world powers, including the United States and Russia, the host of next year's World Cup. Taking action against Syria would require more institutional courage than FIFA has previously demonstrated, he says.

 Mohammed al-Homsi, a media activist reached in the besieged neighborhood of Al Waer inside Homs, says he continues to follow the national team because "generally speaking, sports is the only thing connecting us with the past. I won't say the Syrian team represents the entire Syrian spectrum, but it represents the beautiful past. Sports should be kept separate from conflict."

 Khatib, still acclimating to a team he has not led in five years, starts the game on the bench. South Korea takes a 1-0 lead in the fourth minute. The Syrians spend the rest of the night trying to claw their way back.

 Khatib enters early in the second half. Almost immediately, the pace of the game picks up as Syria goes on the attack. The stadium is about half full. The crowd, previously buoyant, is reduced to a nervous murmur as the Syrians repeatedly threaten.

 As the clock ticks down, the ball, poetically, finds Khatib to the left of the net, alone. From a distance of about 10 feet, he blasts a left footer straight at the goalkeeper's head. The keeper, Sun-Tae Kwoun, manages to get his hands in front of his face at the last second and swats the ball away.

 In stoppage time, with the crowd now screaming, Khatib gets one more chance. Alone again, in almost the exact same spot, he shoots another rocket, this time aiming higher. The ball thumps against the crossbar so hard the sound can be heard halfway up the stands. But it ricochets away.

 Khatib says he came back to try to lift Syria, if for only a moment, out of its unending hell. "Finally I take the right decision," he says. "I hope I can let the Syrian people [be] happy."

 But not tonight. The 1-0 loss puts Syria four points out of third place with three games left, its World Cup hopes all but over.

 A week later, there is more news out of Syria, and it's indirectly related to Khatib's long-ago vow not to play as long Assad was killing civilians. This time the government has bombed the rebel-held village of Khan Sheikhoun with sarin, a chemical weapon. The images are horrific: Catatonic victims foam at the mouth, their pupils constricted to the size of pinpricks. Half-naked children lie helplessly in puddles, gasping for air.

 The bombs kill at least 85 people.'

Don't be fooled: Assad is no friend of Syria's Christian minorities

Don't be fooled: Assad is no friend of Syria's Christian minorities

 'Last week, during a markup of the House Foreign Affairs Committee, Congressman Dana Rohrabacher asserted that the Assad regime was “the protector of the Christians” in Syria.

 As Syrian Christians who grew up in Syria, we would beg to differ. Hundreds of innocent Christians seeking freedom have been tortured to death in Assad’s jails or shot to death by his brutal thugs – including the activist Bassel Shehadeh, who was killed at a protest, then killed in spirit because Assad forces prevented his friends from going to church to pray for his soul. Human rights lawyer Khalil Maatouk has been detained in Assad’s jails in Damascus for over four years for the “crime” of defending detainees in Assad’s jails.

 These anecdotes are not new and are not isolated incidents. Christians never had true freedom of religion under the Assad regime; for decades, it used a mixture of incentives and threats to tightly control Christian clergy and ensure that they were not free to speak their mind. Christians were much more free before Assad took power, when Protestant Christian Fares al-Khouri was elected prime minister of Syria in democratic elections in 1954. But under Assad, Rohrbacher might be surprised to know, Christians are legally banned from becoming the head of state.

 It’s a strange protector of Christians who nurtures and shelters their worst enemies against the will of the entire world. Assad did that, too — starting in 2003, his intelligence services worked closely with the terrorist fanatics who would eventually form ISIS because he wanted to prevent America from stabilizing Iraq.

 The Syrian revolution began six years ago as a multi-ethnic, multi-sectarian movement, but Assad released dozens of extremists from his jails in an effort to give the revolution a more Islamist character and present the false choice between him and the radical Islamists he nurtured. According to the Treasury Department, Assad continues to buy “a great deal of oil” from ISIS constituting millions of dollars in trade. At one point, oil sales to Assad accounted for 72 percent of ISIS’ income from revenues, according to documents uncovered from a U.S. Special Forces raid on ISIS Oil Minister Abu Sayyaf.

 Christians are not safe in Assad’s Syria. According to the Syrian Network for Human Rights, over 60 percent of all churches in Syria that have been destroyed during the war have been by the Assad regime. Many Christians have been killed by Assad’s indiscriminate barrel bombs and aerial attacks in the past six years most notably many who were bombed to death by Assad warplanes and attacked by Hezbollah in Yabroud, a mixed Christian-Muslim town along the Lebanese border that was a bright spot for interfaith relations among Syrians after it was liberated from Assad in 2012.

 Assad views Christians as a sectarian card used to preserve his interests and preserve his regime. While Assad sends delegations of priests all around the world, including the United States, to defend his regime and Hezbollah, have we forgotten the Christian priest who was murdered and dragged through the streets by Syrian security agents for defying Assad during the mid-2000s Kurdish revolt?

 Privately, many Christian leaders who have defended Assad’s regime and Hezbollah in trips to Western countries have met with us and sent us messages for the past few years explaining to us how they’d been coerced to do so by the regime.

 As leaders of Syrian Christians for Peace, an international Syrian Christian organization with chapters in the United States, the European Union, and Turkey, and which was mentioned by Congresswoman Louis Frankel in response to Rohrabacher’s falsehoods, we have fought Assad’s false narrative of propaganda for the past six years.

 We, along with a network of Christians inside Syria, have worked in the opposition pushing for secular democracy and human rights for all Syrians. Many Syrian Christians are represented in the highest levels of the Syrian opposition including the Higher Negotiations Committee and Syrian Coalition, which have been recognized as the legitimate representatives of the Syrian people by the United States and the international community.

 Syrians right now, both Christians and Muslim, are the victims of a tyrannical regime on the one side and radical Islamist terrorists such as ISIS and al-Qaeda and other radical groups on the other. Yet the vast majority of Syrians inside Syria and throughout the world simple want a secular democratic country like we enjoy here in the United States, with equal rights for all citizens. Syrian Christians lived in Syria for centuries before Assad but only reached the highest levels of government when Syria was democratic. Rohrbacher’s adoption of the sectarian narrative peddled by the Assad regime is not helpful towards the goal of secular democracy and only places Christians like us in more danger.

 If Congress really wants to protect Syrian Christians, it should pass the Caesar Syria Civilian Protection Act of 2017, which would put sanctions on all those supporting the regime’s war crimes. These sanctions, which would also apply to Russia and Iran, would give President Trump an important tool to push forward a negotiated settlement that removes Assad from power, and transitions Syria into a secular democracy where all Syrians can be protected regardless of religion or ethnicity.'

Wednesday, 10 May 2017

The Rebel Who Defied Jihadists By Smoking

 'A Syrian rebel famous for single-handedly destroying dozens of Assad regime tanks and even fighter jets has been arrested by jihadists in the northern province of Idlib after posting photos on Facebook mocking their religious proselytizing.

 Twenty-nine-year-old Suhail al-Hammoud, a fighter for the non-jihadist Faylaq al-Sham (“Sham Legion”) brigade, is better known as “Abu al-TOW” (“The Father of the TOW”) for his extraordinary prowess with American-supplied Tube-launched Optically-tracked Wire-guided (“TOW”) anti-tank missiles, with which he told one reporter in October 2015 he had personally taken out 56 vehicles, including two MiG planes at an Aleppo airbase.

 An unabashed moderate, Abu al-TOW has never disguised his disdain for the jihadists of the so-called Islamic State and the al-Qaeda-linked Nusra Front, against whom he fought bloody battles while part of the U.S.-backed Hazm Movement in late 2014 and early 2015. And the Abu al-TOW case highlights the enduring resistance to Islamization by the moderate elements of Syria’s opposition, whose very existence often is downplayed or even denied in the world press.

 “From the beginning, Suhail was known for his hatred of Nusra Front,” said Ahmad Barakat, a friend of Hammoud’s now based in Turkey. Nusra couldn’t simply kidnap him, however, “because of his popularity and his great effect on the battlefield … Regime troops used to get scared when they heard Abu al-TOW was participating in a battle; this was something we would hear on the wireless handhelds.”

 Instead, Nusra tried several times to assassinate him surreptitiously, according to Barakat; shooting at his car one night a few months ago, for example. The attempts failed to kill him and failed to silence him.

 So when Hammoud recently uploaded photos on Facebook mocking Nusra’s new coalition, Hay’at Tahrir al-Sham (“The Levant Liberation Committee”, or HTS), including one showing him smoking a cigarette in front of a sign reading, “Smoking is haram [religiously forbidden],” his puritan foes saw a new window of opportunity.

 Driving Sunday in the village of Ehsim, 30 kilometers southwest of Idlib City, Hammoud was apprehended and issued with a summons by an HTS member, according to a relative of Hammoud’s in Idlib Province. When he duly went to the HTS pseudo-police center in the neighboring village of Marayan the following day, he was told a number of complaints had been made about him on grounds of his alleged “derision of religion.” He was detained and later transferred to the HTS security branch, Liwa al-Uqab (“The Eagle Brigade”), in whose custody he remains. An attempt by a delegation of Hammoud’s Sham Legion comrades to negotiate his release on Tuesday was unsuccessful. Having initially been promised he would be released within hours, the last thing Hammoud’s relative was told was that he would appear before an HTS “judge” this Saturday.

 There is little expectation of this “court” session going favorably for Hammoud, according to the relative. In addition to his brazen flaunting of the smoking prohibition, and his history of affiliation with secular-leaning factions (supported by Washington, no less), Abu al-TOW was publicly critical of the recent so-called Four Towns Deal, endorsed by HTS, which led to controversial mass population transfers between pro- and anti-regime towns. A second photo posted on Facebook by Hammoud showed him sealing his mouth ironically in front of an HTS sign that read, “No to the truce, for it is fitna [sedition].”

 Of course, for a sizeable demographic within the Syrian armed and civil opposition, it’s the jihadists who are guilty of sedition. A demonstration calling for Hammoud’s release was held Thursday in the city of Azaz, and pro-opposition social media witnessed a wave of support for him, with Arabic hashtags calling HTS leader Abu Muhammad al-Jawlani an Assad regime “agent” and declaring, “He who arrests a revolutionary is a traitor.” The leaders of several Free Syrian Army (FSA) brigades have privately petitioned HTS to release Hammoud, albeit with no success so far, according to FSA political officer Asaad Hanna.

 “The FSA, in its leadership and membership, will continue to demand [Hammoud’s release], and will use other means as well to this end, and will not stand with arms folded in this regard,” Hanna said.

 Few expect HTS to be moved by such pleas, however, least of all from a brigade such as Hammoud’s. Although the Sham Legion has stayed out of recent hostilities with HTS elsewhere in the country, it does still “tick a number of boxes of HTS concern,” said Charles Lister, Senior Fellow at the Middle East Institute who has researched Syria’s opposition extensively.

 Sham Legion is “a CIA-vetted formation; it’s the most important component of Turkey’s opposition force in northern Aleppo; and it maintains intensely close ties to Turkey and its strategy inside Idlib,” Lister said.

 There have even been recent negotiations, Lister added, between Sham Legion and other Turkey-backed forces to merge or otherwise coordinate closer with an explicit view to countering HTS’s dominance.

 Probably few people outside the small community of professional Syria-watchers were ever aware that a rebel brigade named the 13th Division peacefully protested against Nusra for over 200 days in a row in Idlib’s Maarrat al-Numan in 2016.

 On the one hand, Hammoud’s defiance is an encouraging sign that the extremists’ takeover of rebel-held territories is no fait accompli, and is being confronted by moderates whether the West takes notice or not. On the other hand, the fact that the non-jihadist forces appear powerless to do anything tangible to secure Hammoud’s release shows how much ground already has been lost. Barakat’s assessment of the likelihood of him seeing his friend any time soon is bleakly telling.

 “Obviously, all my hopes are that Suhail is fine and will be released immediately. But … based on all prior experiences with Nusra arresting the early revolutionaries and … people with popular influence opposed to al-Qaeda’s ideology, I do not expect Suhail’s release soon.”

 “In all previous cases of arrests of this kind of person, and the examples are many, they were murdered, or disappeared in prisons up to the present day.” '