Stealing Palestine: Who Dragged Palestinians into Syria’s Conflict?


By Sharmine Narwani

Via SYRIA 360°
Palestinian "volunteer forces" stand guard while NGOs tend to Yarmouk camp residents receiving food aid, medical assistance and evacuation.

Palestinian “volunteer forces” stand guard while NGOs tend to Yarmouk camp residents receiving food aid, medical assistance and evacuation.

Palestinians didn’t jump into the fray in Syria. They were dragged into it – violently and reluctantly. Here is the story of how and why Palestinians and their 14 refugee camps became strategic targets in the Battle for Syria.

My first visit to Yarmouk took place a few days after 20 people were killed in the Palestinian camp’s first major shelling incident on August 2, 2012. Residents showed me the damage caused by the first mortar – which hit the roof of a small apartment building not far from Tadamoun, a Damascus suburb where rebels and security forces were clashing daily.

As bystanders rushed to investigate the damage, a second shell hit the narrow street outside where onlookers had congregated, killing and injuring dozens.

Foreign media headlines suggested the Syrian government was shelling Yarmouk, but Palestinians inside expressed doubt. Some said these were rebel mortars from adjacent neighborhoods, but it was clear nobody could provide definitive answers for what may simply have been a series of stray shells.

Yarmouk, once home to around a million Syrians and 160,000 Palestinian refugees, was an oasis of calm that summer day of my visit.

By contrast, driving through rebel-occupied Tadamoun, Yalda and Hajar al-Aswad on my way in and out of the camp, one could only gape at the burned buildings and vehicles, shuttered shops, rubble in the streets and makeshift checkpoints dotting these new conflict zones.

Return to Yarmouk

A year-and-a-half later, in March 2014, I visited Yarmouk again. The camp is unrecognizable now, and the pictures we see don’t do justice to the damage.

At the entrance of the camp, I was greeted by armed Palestinians who are part of a 14-group ‘volunteer force’ formed for the purpose of protecting Yarmouk and ejecting the rebel fighters deep inside the camp. The group falls under the umbrella of the Popular Palestinian Committees for the Liberation of Yarmouk.

When I ask them where they’re from, in rapid-fire, one after the other, they tell me,“Safad, Lubya, Haifa, Tiberias, Jerusalem, Acca,” though, of course, they’re too young to ever have been to any of these places. That’s where their parents or grandparents hail from. That’s where they intend to return one day.

There’s a lone Syrian among them. He was raised in Yarmouk and is a Palestinian as far as he’s concerned.

The stories these fighters tell me is nothing I have read in English, or in any mainstream publication outside Syria. Theirs is a story that is black-and-white. Thousands of Islamist fighters invaded and occupied Yarmouk on December 17, 2012, and Palestinians and Syrians alike fled the camp, literally beginning the next day.

The militants, they say, systematically destroyed the camp, killed people, looted homes, hospitals – anything they could get their hands on. They insist that the rebels could not have captured Yarmouk without the help of Hamas, and are convinced that Hamas supporters are still inside the camp,  now members of Al-Nusra Front, AknafBeit al-Maqdes, Ohdat al-Omariyya, Ahrar al-Yarmouk, Zahrat al Mada’en and other rebel groups that they say occupy the camp. 

They claim Hamas employed and provided financial assistance to displaced Syrians who escaped conflict elsewhere and settled in Yarmouk.

“They hired them for this conflict,” says one.

The finger-pointing at Hamas persists throughout all my conversations with refugees in the three separate camps I visit in Syria. While all Hamas officials exited the country early on in the conflict, the fact remains that many Palestinians affiliated with Hamas did not. On the outside, we understand Hamas is not there, but within the camps, Palestinians identify the individuals they accuse of sedition as “Hamas people.”

This blurred line has provided Hamas’ political leadership with ‘plausible-deniability’ against accusations that it has aided Islamist rebels in the camps.

The fuzzy lines first became clear to me in the autumn of 2011 when a Hamas official confided that they had to “remove some people” from these areas who were displaying increasing sympathy with the Syrian opposition.

But back to the Palestinian fighters in Yarmouk.

Last bastion of the PLA

My attention is diverted by the stories one of them tells me about members of the Palestine Liberation Army (PLA) who were assassinated in the lead-up to the occupation of Yarmouk.

From the age of 18, all male Palestinian refugees in Syria take part in compulsory military service in the PLA for a period of 18 months. They are trained directly and solely by the PLA, but weaponry and facilities are provided by the Syrian army. Once upon a time, the PLA was also based in Egypt, Iraq, Jordan and Lebanon where their mandate was to cooperate with the host government – today, the only PLA base left in the entire Arab world is in Syria.

I head over to the makeshift headquarters of the PLA to find out more. They have temporarily relocated from Moadamiyah in West Ghouta, a rebel-occupied suburb of Damascus. There, I meet with General Hassan Salem and General Nabil Yacoub, two senior officials who report directly to PLA commander Major-General Tariq al-Khadra.

The PLA’s mission is “to liberate Palestine” and the generals tell me they “do not play a role in defending [Palestinian] camps during the Syrian conflict.” By all accounts, this appears to be true.

But in 2012, the PLA was dragged into Syria’s crisis quite unwillingly. On January 5, Major Basil Amin Ali was assassinated by an unknown assailant in Aarbin – east of Jobar in the Damascus suburbs – while he was fixing his car by the side of the road.

Colonel Abdul Nasser Mawqari was shot dead inside Yarmouk the following month, on February 29.

A week later, on March 6, Colonel Rida Mohyelddin al-Khadra – a relation of PLA commander, General Khadra – was assassinated in Qatna, 20km south of Damascus, while driving home in his car.

On June 5, PLA Brigadier-General Dr. Anwar Mesbah al-Saqaa was killed in Aadawi Street in Damascus by explosives planted in his car, under his seat. He had left his home in Barzeh and was dropping his daughter off at university. Both she and the driver of the car were injured.

A few weeks later, on June 26, Colonel Ahmad Saleh Hassan was assassinated in Sahnaya, also in the Damascus suburbs.

General Abdul Razzak Suheim, his son, and a soldier guarding them were killed on July 26 in rebel-occupied Yalda, the neighborhood adjacent to Yarmouk – a week before those first mortars killed 20 residents of the camp.

On July 11, in a full-on attack against the PLA, opposition militants kidnapped and killed 14 Palestinian soldiers heading back to Nairab camp on a weekend break from training exercises in Mesiaf, 48km southwest of Hama. According to the PLA generals I interviewed, the soldiers were divided into two groups – half were shot, while the other half were tortured and then beheaded.

Many Palestinians I interviewed told the story of the driver of the PLA van – who was not a soldier himself. Ahmad Ezz was a young man from the Nairab camp in Aleppo. The rebels spared him – temporarily – then strapped him into a vehicle rigged with massive explosives, and ordered him to drive into a Syrian army checkpoint.

According to multiple Arabic news reports, at the very last minute, Ahmad veered sharply away from the checkpoint. The rebels detonated the explosives and Ahmad died, but by changing course he spared the Syrian soldiers.

In what perhaps speaks to Palestinian sentiment about the Syrian conflict more than many of the ‘contested’ incidents, the residents of Nairab camp turned out en masse for Ahmad’s funeral. Says Mohammad, a young Palestinian whose family lives outside Yarmouk in one of the neighboring suburbs – and who first told me the story of Ahmad – “We saw him as a hero for saving the [Syrian] soldiers.”

This isn’t such an odd sentiment. After all, the majority of male Palestinian refugees in Syria have undergone military training by the PLA, under the auspices of the Syrian armed forces.

The international media has tended to focus on events in Yarmouk as the ‘one’ Palestinian story inside Syria, but this is far from accurate. There are about 14 different refugee camps in the country, each with its own experiences in this Syrian conflict.

‘Camp Jolie’

I visit Jeramana camp next. It is a small camp on the outskirts of Damascus that blends into the larger Jeramana neighborhood, both now bustling with refugees from other camps and from conflict-hit parts of Syria.

A food market inside Jeramana, one of 14 official and unofficial Palestinian refugee camps inside Syria.

A food market inside Jeramana, one of 14 official and unofficial Palestinian refugee camps inside Syria.

Jeramana is peaceful, though mortars, rockets and rebels from nearby BeitSaham, Jobar and EinTerma break the calm every so often. Because militants intermittently try to storm the camp entrances, Jeramana residents also have a ‘volunteer force’  like Yarmouk’s – this one manned by armed men from three Palestinian factions: the Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine-General Command (PFLP-GC – led by Ahmad Jibril), Fatah Intifada and as-Sa’iqa. One of the fighters that met me at the camp entrance has a broken arm from a recent skirmish with rebels.

This is the camp made famous by Angelina Jolie in October 2009, when she came to visit Palestinian refugees displaced by conflict in Iraq. At Jeramana’s entrance lies a monument dedicated to the camp’s martyrs killed by mortars from neighboring areas. Syrian flags hold sway alongside Palestinian ones here.

Further into the camp, I spot several dozen children in festive mode, sporting nationalist clothing and hoisting Palestinian and Syrian flags. One carries a large poster of Syrian President Bashar Assad. The kids are about to perform in a ceremony for Yom al-Ard (Land Day) to commemorate the day in 1976 when Israel confiscated thousands of dunams of Palestinian land. They do an impromptu dress rehearsal for me before going on stage – here is the video.

I follow them around the corner to their destination and am startled at what lies ahead. A large, colorful tent has been erected to house a crowd attending the Yom al-Ard activities – but flanking the podium inside are massive posters of Hezbollah Secretary-General Hassan Nasrallah, the Islamic Republic of Iran’s Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, his predecessor Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini and Assad.

In Jeramana on Yom al-Ard (Land Day), Palestinians gather for a ceremony to honor volunteer teachers. The event is sponsored by the decade-old Palestinian-Iranian Friendship Association.

In Jeramana on Yom al-Ard (Land Day), Palestinians gather for a ceremony to honor volunteer teachers. The event is sponsored by the decade-old Palestinian-Iranian Friendship Association.

The event, which used to be held in Yarmouk camp, has been organized by the Palestinian-Iranian Friendship Association, and has been around for at least 10 years. The event’s focus is not political, however. Its mission is to honor teachers volunteering in the camps with gifts and awards.

I am curious about the Syrian flags though – they are everywhere. A camp resident tells me, “You rarely saw this before the crisis.” He thinks there are two reasons for the flags.

“To show solidarity – we now believe that Palestine is over if Syria falls – and maybe also to show loyalty, because there’s doubt been sown.”

In 2012, all the Palestinian political factions – with the exception of Hamas – signed onto two separate letters/declarations that essentially pledged neutrality in the Syrian conflict. So this visible support for the Syrian government is unexpected.

Syrian support goes on

The Syrian state continues to support Palestinian refugees in various ways: inside Jeramana, the Syrians have established a supply store that provides food basics – lentils, jam, beans, tomato paste, yoghurt etc – at substantial discounts for camp residents and displaced persons. An elderly woman sits at her makeshift stall elsewhere in the camp, distributing state-subsidized bread for literally pennies. (In Yarmouk, I had also observed government-donated bread and jam sandwiches handed out to refugees awaiting UNRWA food aid boxes.)

Inside the camp’s main marketplace, an abundance of fresh fruits and vegetables are on display in the narrow street. Even though the camp’s population has swelled to four to five times its pre-conflict numbers, residents have adapted to the new realities in Jeramana. They, at least, still have their homes.

Unlike Yarmouk, there is no visible presence of UNRWA – the UN agency dedicated to Palestinian refugees – and I am told they do not have an office here. Palestinians from other camps – and Syrians too – have flooded Jeramana in this crisis, so local “committees” step in to provide food, often daily. A committee truck passes by at lunchtime – it carries industrial-sized metal pots of home-made rice and stew to hand out to the new residents.

Jeramana is one of at least 14 Palestinian refugee camps and areas in Syria, both official and unofficial. In every interview with Palestinian officials, aid workers and regular civilians, I asked for status updates on each of the camps. The responses varied sufficiently to suggest that events on the ground keep shifting, especially in rebel-occupied or surrounded camps where clashes take place between militants and Palestinian forces – or with the Syrian army on the outskirts.

In the Damascus area alone, there is Husayniyya (rebels occupied and ejected, destroyed), Yarmouk (rebel-occupied, 18,000 civilians still inside), SeyyedaZeinab (no rebels), Jeramana (no rebels), Khan Danoun (no rebels), Khan Shieh (partly rebel occupied, some civilians remain) and Sbeineh (reportedly 70 percent destroyed).

In Aleppo, you have two hard-hit camps – Handarat, where refugees fled long time ago, has collapsed, as has much of Nairab camp. Both camps have armed Palestinian volunteer forces battling rebels.

The camp in Daraa has been leveled and there have been no civilians there for much of this conflict. The al-Ramel camp in Latakia has had two major clashes in 2011 and is now fine. There is Al Wafiddine camp next to Douma, which nobody mentions or seems to know much about. The refugee camps in Homs and Hama are rebel-free and thriving – surprisingly, given that these provinces have been major anti-government hubs.

I travel to the Homs camp next to see for myself.

The Palestinian camp here is the only one where there is a quasi-functioning Hamas office. The resistance group and its entire official encampment in Syria left the country in 2011, so technically the Hamas reps in the camp do not serve in any official capacity.

I ask a pro-government PFLP-GC official about Hamas’ presence in the camp, and he says,

“There is a ‘different’ group of Hamas here who are in agreement with cooperation to keep this camp quiet.”

I ask him if he can set up a meeting with these Hamas representatives. He makes several calls in my presence, but they turn him down

“because they don’t want to get in trouble with their leadership.”

Homs sweet Homs

The Homs camp is starkly different from Yarmouk and Jeramana for one main reason: there is not an armed person in sight. The main thoroughfare is crowded with shops and one has to weave through the throngs of people going about their daily chores. Nothing much to see here – Palestinians in Homs have taken ‘neutrality’ to heart.

My main stop in the Homs camp is to Bissan Hospital, named after a city in Palestine and run by the Palestinian Red Crescent Society (PRCS). Bissan’s chief executive is Mahmoud Darwish, whose simple office features only four pictures on its walls – two of deceased PLO Chairman Yasser Arafat, one of Bashar Assad and a map of Al-Aqsa Mosque in Jerusalem.

Bissan promised neutrality at the start of the Syrian conflict, and as such, provides medical treatment to pro and anti-government fighters alike.

“Their background makes no difference to us.” The hospital backs onto a Syrian neighborhood where clashes have taken place – Bissan treats Syrian army soldiers too.

When I meet Darwish, he has visitors already, and they remain for the interview. The talk turns political as some of them weigh in with their thoughts and opinions. I am told the reason the camp has managed to stay out of the fray is because

“between Baba Amr (about 1.5km away) and the camp there was the Syrian army, which is why rebels couldn’t come into the camp.”

Another tells me that

“Dialogue really helped this camp. There was a lot of dialogue here. Some of the Palestinian leaders have been involved in reconciliation efforts and facilitating between rebels and the Syrian government.”

Hamas crops up again. The men talk about being repelled at the speeches of sectarian Islamist preacher Yusuf Qaradawi and others “who showed no remorse over Syrian deaths.” But, says one, “the Hamas section in this camp refused to have any part in the Syrian crisis. Hamas officials here – their families are here, they grew up here. In Yarmouk, some of them came from as far away as Gaza.”

Darwish steps in to explain their interest in keeping the peace.

“We (Palestinians) have all the rights in Syria. We are like Syrian citizens here; we study in schools together… Very few Palestinians were drawn into this conflict – only really marginal people.”

I ask if the Syrian army ever entered the camp in Homs. This is a charge that has made the media rounds throughout this conflict, and it is a question I ask in every camp I visit. The answer is a decisive “No.”

NGOs back ‘no intervention’ claims

Back in Damascus, I meet with the head of the Syrian Red Crescent Society (SARC). This is the group that functions as the hands and feet of the International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC) inside Syria. It is a neutral group and goes to great pains to stay impartial so that it can operate within both rebel- and government-controlled areas.

In Yarmouk and other camps, the Palestinian Red Crescent Society (PRCS) is supposed to take the field lead, but PRCS supplies and equipment were so completely ransacked by militants, that SARC has provided ambulances, medicines and aid workers to keep up with demand. SARC workers were in Yarmouk during my visit, and helped in evacuating several residents who had been approved for medical treatment. Some of the ill and injured are transported to PRCS medical facilities, but most are treated at Syrian hospitals.

I meet Dr. Abdul Rahman Attar, the president of SARC, and ask him if the Syrian army ever entered Palestinian camps while civilians were still in residence.

“In my opinion, no.” he says. “Everything happening in Yarmouk is in the hands of Palestinians, not Syrians,” says Attar. “The Syrian role is only in facilitation.”

That theme continues with everyone I ask. The only exception to this, say Palestinians of all backgrounds, is when camps are entirely empty of civilians – as in Daraa and Handarat. Only then does the Syrian army enter to fight rebels.

Dr. Shaker Shihabi is the PRCS’s director in Syria and a member of the executive council of the parent organization, headquartered in Ramallah, Palestine. The PRCS runs three large hospitals in Syria: Bissan in Homs, Yaffa Hospital in el-Mezzeh, Damascus, and Palestine Hospital in Yarmouk camp. Some of the smaller clinics they used to run in Nairab, Sbeineh, Khan Danoun and Douma were destroyed in the Syrian conflict.

The PRCS is one of the few NGOs still operating inside the rebel-occupied part of Yarmouk camp. They run the only functioning, non-rebel medical facility inside the camp, the Palestine Hospital.

“We only have two doctors and some volunteer workers left there. We lost two doctors and five staff members in this crisis – they were killed. The last one was a few months ago – Diab Muhanna, an assistant pharmacist – he was shot outside the hospital,”says Shihabi.

Access to medical care inside Yarmouk was further crippled when “about eight cars, six ambulances, were stolen (after rebels occupied the camp), they robbed our biggest storage facility for drugs and medical supplies.”

Earlier this year, PRCS helped in the evacuation of “more than 3,000” civilians in Yarmouk. The Syrian government gives final approval for who gets out.“They screen for fighters,” Shihabi says.

Food issues

“Hunger,” he says, is a problem in the camp, and while civilians receive food boxes from UNRWA and other international NGOs, Shihabi explains that the food situation has improved since February-March 2014 when “both sides opened borders with Yalda and other neighborhoods. Before that rice was 15,000 lira [per kilo], now it is 500 lira.”

My trip to Yarmouk coincides with the arrival of an UNRWA food van at the camp. In the past year, the UN agency has relentlessly publicized the Palestinian starvation story, but left out key details.

A small UNRWA van delivers boxes of staple foods to Yarmouk camp residents who wait at a pick-up point. Bread donated by the Syrian government lies atop the boxes.

A small UNRWA van delivers boxes of staple foods to Yarmouk camp residents who wait at a pick-up point. Bread donated by the Syrian government lies atop the boxes.

For example, food scarcity hasn’t been the issue as much as accessibility and cost. There are vulnerable populations inside the camp who cannot fend for themselves, including children, the elderly, and single parents like the woman I met whose husband vanished at the start of the crisis and who has to tend to all the needs of her two young daughters alone.

In Yarmouk, food has always been smuggled in from neighboring rebel-held areas, but sellers have milked the opportunity to profit from the instability by charging staggering prices for food staples.

And then there are other problems. A PRCS aid worker inside Yarmouk tells me,

“At the beginning of the aid distribution, rebels took the majority of boxes from people. But civilians inside formed committees against this and have minimized it.”

While I was interviewing aid recipients, two separate women, one with a child, complained to the UNRWA rep that rebels had confiscated their food boxes in the past week, and asked for a replacement. The UNRWA initially refused, citing an obligation to provide its limited boxes to all residents equally, but then relented, perhaps because of media on the scene.

The UNRWA told me it hands out approximately 400 boxes each day they are present in Yarmouk. Armed clashes prevent it from being able to access delivery points inside the camp on most days though. On the day of my visit, its food van did not have more than 100 boxes, and during the time I spent there, I did not see more than several dozen civilians line up for these boxes.

Yet UNRWA spokespeople have hit social media channels with a vengeance, loudly suggesting that18,000 civilians inside Yarmouk are somehow dependent on their food aid. This is simply false. UNRWA has not had the financial or material capability to expand and extend its operations to meet Palestinian needs during this conflict. They continue to assist with schooling, provide food supplies and medical kits, but everywhere you turn in Yarmouk, Jeramana or Homs, there is also now an adhoc Palestinian committee doing the fieldwork and cobbling together assistance.

The main UNRWA rep in charge of food distribution inside Yarmouk offers up one interesting fact:

“The Syrian government is doing its best to make this operation smooth. They do not put a cap on the number of [food] parcels to come in the camp.”

He specifically credits KindaChammat, Syria’s female minister of social affairs, for much of this.

Where did it all go wrong?

How did things get so bad for Palestinians in Syria? This is the one Arab country, after all, where Palestinians are entitled to an equal range of rights enjoyed by their hosts, with the exception of citizenship and the vote.

Over the course of Syria’s conflict, Palestinian refugee camps have become active targets in every area rebel fighters could gain access. But why? What was the strategic value of entering the camps?

It prompts the question: were Palestinians dragged into this crisis for political reasons – to split their allegiances and wrest the Palestinian cause from the Syrian government? Or were they dragged into this crisis because many of the camps were situated in strategic areas, as in Yarmouk, a key gateway to Damascus, or Handarat, providing supply-line access to Aleppo? The answer, according to all the political factions I interviewed is“A bit of both.”

But first, let’s correct some misinformation. Contrary to mainstream narratives, Palestinian refugees did not participate in any significant demonstrations either against the Syrian government or in favor of the Syrian opposition. Throughout the crisis, Palestinians worked in earnest to maintain neutrality and stay out of the conflict. The largest demonstrations against the government never numbered more than a few hundred people and were often populated by displaced Syrians who had moved to these camps.

While also receiving food assistance from international NGOs and the Syrian government, Palestinians in refugee camps have now created locally-formed committees to provide daily nourishment for the influx of displaced persons.

While also receiving food assistance from international NGOs and the Syrian government, Palestinians in refugee camps have now created locally-formed committees to provide daily nourishment for the influx of displaced persons.

In fact, the most significant Palestinian demonstration during the crisis took place in Yarmouk in June 2011, after Palestinians were killed and injured by Israeli security forces during Naksa Day protests on the Golan Heights border.

Events in Yarmouk that day are heavily contested. There were clashes during the funeral processions where large crowds amassed, many angry for the human loss needlessly suffered. Foreign media blamed the Syrian government for urging and assisting Palestinians to participate in the Naksa protest, but they overlooked one fact: the Syrian government, like its Lebanese counterpart, canceled the Naksa protest – most likely because of the deaths and injuries caused by Israelis the previous month during Nakba Day border protests.

During the funeral procession in Yarmouk, Palestinians were mostly angry at their various Palestinian political faction leaders for encouraging – and not stopping – the Naksa incident. After that, the story diverges. Some charge the pro-Syrian government PFLP-GC with firing into crowds, but the fact remains that three PFLP-GC members were killed that day and their offices burned down.

Now for a twist. A Hamas official interviewed on background tells me an unexpected version of the story.

“Some Free Syrian Army (FSA) fighters went to Ahmad Jibril’s offices – the Khalesa compound – during the funeral and started shooting,” he says.

He does not absolve the PFLP-GC from its role in the Syrian crisis, however. He blames Jibril’s group for not respecting the neutrality pact that Palestinians agreed upon from the beginning. By all accounts, the PFLP-GC policed the outskirts of various Palestinian camps – they say, to protect the camps from infiltration by rebel militants. Detractors insist this kind of activity instead fueled clashes and drew militants into the camps.

But at the end of the day, it was Hamas that was the lone Palestinian faction not to sign the Palestinian neutrality declaration – the PFLP-GC signed on with all the other factions.


There is little doubt that the PFLP-GC’s decision to take on a defense role in Palestinian camps irked the other groups. However, today, Palestinian politicos appear to be in lockstep with Jibril on the Syrian conflict.

At the faction level – and even among Palestinian refugees I spoke with – there is absolute consensus on the fact that the rebels have reneged on their promises to leave Palestinians out of the crisis.

Says Maher Taher, a member of the political bureau of George Habash’s PFLP (different group than the PFLP-GC),

“There have been attempts by all Palestinian groups to help broker peace in Yarmouk. We reached agreements, but [the rebels] have a problem with implementation. The deal is essentially that armed groups should leave the camp and Palestinians should return. The Syrian government is being cooperative with these operations and has granted chances to feed civilians inside. But at the moment of implementation, the rebels break the agreement.”

Even Palestine’s Ambassador to Syria Anwar Abdul-Hadi, who essentially reports to the Palestinian Authority, sounds just like the PFLP-GC these days.

“We asked them to leave Palestinians alone and the rebels said ‘this is Syrian land’ and they refused. We got a promise from the Syrian army never to go into the camps and the Syrian government kept its word. Till now we keep trying to ask rebels to leave, but have not succeeded because of Al-Nusra [Front], Jabhat al-Islamiyya and Hamas.”

Hamas, I ask?

“Yes,” he says.

“Hamas, Hamas, Hamas, Hamas.”

That may be self-serving. The dominant Fatah faction that controls the PA has been trying to undermine Hamas for years.

“The rebels,” Abdul-Hadi continues, “keep preventing (food aid) operations and they use hunger as a way to keep the Syrian government under pressure.” In the first few months of the year, “all [Palestinian] groups sent 12,000 food baskets and evacuated 4,000 Palestinians. And each few days, rebels make a fight to interrupt and stop this operation.”

Abdul-Hadi explains the politics behind these actions.

“Rebels killed some PLA officers to force Palestinians to help the Syrian revolution – to intimidate them. And they blamed the Syrian army. The target of this crisis is the Palestinian case. They think when they occupy Palestinian camps in Syria and divide them, they will forget Palestine,”he says.

“Before this crisis,” he admits, “Fatah was against the Syrian official state. But now there is more understanding between Syria, Iran and the Palestinian Authority.”

Anwar Raja, the PFLP-GC’s media director, has a lot to say about the reaction of other Palestinian factions when things first kicked off in Syria.

“We warned Palestinians in 2011 and 2012 about rebels coming to occupy Yarmouk, and increased these calls as rebels took control of surrounding areas in Tadamoun, Hajar al-Aswad, Yalda. We said the groups should arm themselves in defense of the camp, but they ignored us,”says Raja.

He explains why the other factions have now come around:

“The view of developments is clear now – for Palestinians and Syrians both. People discovered it is a foreign program to destroy the state and divide society. Now we have knowledge and our brains are working again. Even simple, uneducated people have changed their opinion. At the beginning they could not read between the lines – it has been 18 months since everyone realized this. They saw there has been no advantage to this crisis – they lost everything.”

Hardened resolve… not to get involved

As the Arab uprisings took a sledgehammer to authoritarian governments in 2011, Palestinian refugees – like many Syrians who supported protest movements to wrench more liberties from their government – hoped for better times.

There is little doubt that some were supportive of Syrian opposition aspirations. They mirrored, after all, Palestinian ambitions to achieve liberty and establish good governance.

But between my two trips to the camps – in 2012 and 2014 – there has been a marked hardening of Palestinian sentiment. These populations, many of them displaced several times over now, have washed their hands of Syria’s “rebellion.” They have at times felt exploited and bullied by all parties, but have suffered most at the hands of opposition rebels.

Neutrality is their mantra today. And like Syrian civilians everywhere, they want some peace.

River to Sea Uprooted Palestinian   

The views expressed in this article are the sole responsibility of the author and do not necessarily reflect those of the Blog!

The myth of Assad, ISIL and extremism


Oct 7, 2014, Sharmine Narwani, RT

Sharmine Narwani is a commentator and analyst of Middle East geopolitics.

She tweets @snarwani


The myth of Assad, ISIL and extremism

Published time: October 07, 2014 13:39

Syria's President Bashar al-Assad (Reuters / SANA / Handout via Reuters)


Who is to blame for the proliferation of extremist groups in Syria? The West often points a finger at Assad and his allies, but two secret US documents tell a different story.

It is difficult to find US officials directly claiming that Syrian President Bashar al-Assad is in league with the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (ISIL), but you will find plenty who will allude to it using specious reasoning:

US Secretary of State John Kerry is one of many who have sought to encourage this narrative:

“There is evidence that Assad has played footsie with them (ISIL), and he has used them as a tool of weakening the opposition. He never took on their headquarters, which were there and obvious, and other assets that they have. So we have no confidence that Assad is either capable of or willing to take on ISIL.”
That logic forms the basis of several key arguments used by Syria’s opponents to suggest a covert and symbiotic relationship between the Syrian government and Islamist extremists. They go something like this:

• Assad encouraged the growth of militants to create an either-or dilemma for Syrians who want him deposed, but who fear “what comes next.”

• Assad released militants from prison in 2011 so that they would overwhelm secular moderates.

• Proof of this is that the Syrian Army does not attack ISIL targets.

• Assad has a close history with militants – he sent hundreds over the border into Iraq to join the insurgency against US forces and is now suffering blowback.

But as a global confrontation with ISIL mounts, an entirely different picture has begun to emerge. The US-led coalition’s five Arab Sunni partners are providing little less than fig-leaf cover for airstrike operations. NATO has been unable to wrest – to date – a commitment from Turkey to enforce serious border security to stop militants from crossing over into Iraq and Syria. In recent weeks, Western media has unleashed a flurry of articles pointing to Qatar’s role in funding extremists.

Clearly, America’s Sunni Arab and Turkish allies are approaching the “ISIL Project”‘ with something less than enthusiasm.

On Thursday, US Vice President Joe Biden let the cat out of the bag. During a speech at Harvard University, Biden told his audience:

“Our allies in the region were our largest problem in Syria. The Turks…the Saudis, the Emiratis, etc. What were they doing? They were so determined to take down Assad and essentially have a proxy Sunni-Shia war, what did they do? They poured hundreds of millions of dollars and tens, thousands of tons of weapons into anyone who would fight against Assad except that the people who were being supplied were al Nusra and al Qaeda and the extremist elements of jihadis coming from other parts of the world….we could not convince our colleagues to stop supplying them.”

Smoke rises from the southwest of the Syrian town of Ain al-Arab, known as Kobane by the Kurds, following air strikes as seen from the Turkish-Syrian border in the southeastern town of Suruc, Sanliurfa province, on October 7, 2014. (AFP Photo / Aris Messinis)Smoke rises from the southwest of the Syrian town of Ain al-Arab, known as Kobane by the Kurds, following air strikes as seen from the Turkish-Syrian border in the southeastern town of Suruc, Sanliurfa province, on October 7, 2014. (AFP Photo / Aris Messinis)

He, of course, failed to mention Washington’s own arming, training and funding activities coordinated with these very same allies. Predictably, Biden was forced to “apologize” for his undiplomatic comments over the weekend.

But just last month, during a hearing in the US Senate for Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff General Martin Dempsey, Senator Lindsey Graham asked: “Do you know of any major Arab ally that embraces ISIL?”

To the surprise of many, Dempsey countered“I know of major Arab allies who fund them.”

The revelations keep flowing from once tight-lipped Western sources. According to US news reports, current and former officials now say wealthy Gulf donors are the source of early funding:

“These rich individuals have long served as ‘angel investors’ for the most violent militants in the region, providing the ‘seed money’ that helped launch ISIS and other jihadi groups…Former U.S. Navy Admiral and NATO Supreme Commander James Stavridis says the cash flow from private donors is significant now and was even more significant in the early fund-raising done by ISIS and al Qaeda’s affiliate in Syria, the al-Nusra Front,” NBC’s Robert Windrem wrote in an article.

And on Saturday, the UK’s former Assistant Chief of the Defense Staff General Jonathan Shaw, who specialized in counter-terrorism and security policy and retired in 2012, told The Telegraph:
“This is a time bomb that, under the guise of education, Wahhabi Salafism is igniting under the world really. And it is funded by Saudi and Qatari money and that must stop.”

The ‘Assad-has-encouraged-extremism’ argument

Has the Syrian government exploited extremism while at the same time fighting a three-year nationwide military campaign to thwart it? Perhaps. Politics are opportunistic by nature.

But the narrative about Assad encouraging Islamist militancy has always failed to note the historic role of armed Islamists in Syrian “rebellions.”

A US Defense Intelligence Agency (DIA) document that was declassified in 2012 provides a starkly different reading of events leading up to the controversial “Hama massacre” of 1982. It tells a story remarkably similar to events in Syria beginning in early 2011. Here is a montage of quotes from the document:

“In early 1979, encouraged by the Islamic Revolution in Iran, the Syrian Muslim Brotherhood developed a plan to trigger a similar popular revolution in Syria to oust (Hafez) Assad. The massacre of 50 Alawite cadets, on 16 June 1979 at the Artillery School in Aleppo, signaled the start of the MB offensive.”

The Syrian MB regroups for a “new round of fighting” in late 1980, announces the formation of an “Islamic Front”’ and increases cooperation with the Sunni (Baathist) government of Iraq which had helped the MB covertly in 1979-80 to oust Assad.

“The plan, apparently developed by the leadership of the Syrian MB and probably coordinated with Iraq, centered on two complementary actions. The first was a full-scale revolt by the city of Hama, a traditional Brotherhood stronghold and the location of its covert headquarters in Syria. Once this rebellion was unleashed, similar uprisings were to take place in Aleppo, Damascus and other major cities, accompanied by a general strike designed to paralyze Syria…”

“Simultaneously, a sophisticated worldwide propaganda campaign was to be launched supporting the rebellion and emphasizing its victories and the wholesale desertion of Army units to the rebel side. Press releases were to be made in Europe and the US, while propaganda broadcasts against Syria were to be carried by the Phalange-controlled Voice of Lebanon and the Iraqi-controlled Voice of Arab Syria.”

“At least 100 militants were transported from Jordan, where they had taken refuge, into Iraq where they probably received training prior to their movement into Syria… Sometime after this, the infiltration of ‘Secret Apparatus’ militants began from staging areas in Iraq, and to a lesser degree from Turkey, where others had fled. During the interim period, a number of terrorist bombings and shootings took place in Syria to demonstrate the Brotherhood/dissident Alawites ability to strike at the government.”


Free Syrian Army fighters launch a rocket towards Hama military airport that is controlled by forces loyal to Syria's President Bashar al-Assad, in the Hama countryside July 25, 2014. (Reuters / Badi Khlif)Free Syrian Army fighters launch a rocket towards Hama military airport that is controlled by forces loyal to Syria’s President Bashar al-Assad, in the Hama countryside July 25, 2014. (Reuters / Badi Khlif)

“As a result of Syrian security actions, the MB was forced to prematurely unleash the Hama rebellion with the hope that it might spark widespread fighting in other cities…The rebellion would also force the Damascus government to become even more oppressive. The Brotherhood leadership believed this would, in turn, cause greater alienation of the Assad government from the Sunni Muslim majority and within the Alawite community.”

“On February 2, following a clash between the MB and Syrian security forces, the loudspeakers atop the mosque minarets in Hama called on the people to begin a Jihad (Holy Struggle) against the government. The appeal also told the people that arms were available at specified mosques. At about the same time, teams of the MB’s ‘Secret Apparatus,’ some in army uniforms, moved to attack preselected government targets in the city.”

“Despite the propaganda reporting, the uprising in Syria had never spread outside of Hama, although some limited bombings had taken place in Damascus and elsewhere… The total casualties for the Hama incident probably number about 2,000. This includes an estimated 300-400 of the Muslim Brotherhood’s elite ‘Secret Apparatus’… The Syrian dissidents’ modus operandi will continue to be terrorism, particularly bombings and assassinations.”

WikiLeaks: Syria’s government and terrorism

On February 24, 2010, a Cable classified as ‘Secret’ was dispatched from the US Embassy in Damascus to the CIA, DIA, National Security Council, Joint Chiefs of Staff, Office of Homeland Security and a smattering of key US embassies in the Middle East and Europe.

It details the communications between Syria’s General Intelligence Director (GID) Ali Mamlouk who dropped in on a meeting between Syria’s Vice Foreign Minister Faisal al-Miqdad and a US delegation, headed by State Department Coordinator for Counterterrorism Daniel Benjamin.

The participants discuss possible future security and intelligence cooperation on issues related to terrorism, particularly on the Syria-Iraq border.

What is notable about this US-framed communiqué is that the American delegation does not take any of the Syrian officials in the room to task for “encouraging and coordinating” the passage of extremist fighters from Syria into Iraq to participate in an insurgency against US forces. This accusation has become a key narrative advanced by Washington in recent years, so why not challenge the Syrians face-to-face when the opportunity is there?

According to the Cable, Benjamin says “the two countries should still work to cooperate on immediate threats facing both the U.S. and Syria, including the proliferation of takfiri groups in the region, such as al-Qaeda, and stopping the flow of foreign fighters into Iraq.”

The Syrian response? According to the US Cable:

“Mamlouk said the foreign fighters come from a large number of Arab and Muslim countries and that the Syrians detain ‘large numbers plus their local facilitators.’ As an example, Mamlouk said he handed over 23 Saudis detained in Syria to Saudi Prince Muqrin last year.”

The US delegation even acknowledges the fact that the Syrians have been helpful:

“Benjamin commended Mamlouk on reducing the flow of foreign fighters, while encouraging further progress.”

And the Syrians offer additional cooperation, provided that Damascus takes the lead in these efforts:

“Miqdad interjected that the issue of foreign fighters using Syrian soil is a matter of national security for Syria. ‘We have zero tolerance,’ he said. Miqdad said Syria needs the cooperation of other countries, namely those from which the terrorists are coming. ‘If we can close this circle – with us, you, and other countries – we will succeed,’ he concluded.”

The Cable does reveal some interesting information about Syrian strategies in dealing with terrorism, which Mamlouk says differs considerably from the American approach:

“The GID Director said Syria had been more successful than the U.S. and other countries in the region in fighting terrorist groups because ‘we are practical and not theoretical.’ He stated Syria’s success is due to its penetration of terrorist groups. ‘In principle, we don’t attack or kill them immediately. Instead, we embed ourselves in them and only at the opportune moment do we move.’ Describing the process of planting embeds in terrorist organizations as ‘complex,’ Mamlouk said the result had yielded been the detention of scores of terrorists, stamping out terror cells, and stopping hundreds of terrorists from entering Iraq.

Mamlouk acknowledged some terrorists were still slipping into Iraq from Syria. ‘By all means we will continue to do all this, but if we start cooperation with you it will lead to better results and we can better protect our interests,’ he concluded.”

War of words

The tactics described by Mamlouk explain, in part, why Syrian forces today do not typically launch assaults on terrorist groups unless there is an immediate and direct threat to its military strategy of maintaining control over key areas and disrupting rebel supply lines.

While groups like ISIL are viewed as a security threat, they have not always posed an imminent one.

For the better part of the Syrian conflict, ISIL has not controlled the “priority zones” of the Syrian Army.

Those areas have always been Damascus, Aleppo, Homs, Hama and their surrounding countryside (Rif), with Quseir and Qalamoun, Daraa, Tal Kalakh and other border towns playing an important role. When ISIL fighters have been present in those areas, the Syrian Army has fought them – as in Qalamoun and the Damascus suburbs.

In early 2014, pro-opposition writer and researcher A.J. Tamimi questioned in detail accusations of collaboration between the Syrian government and ISIL/al Nusra. Among his many points, Tamimi notes:

“One must ask what the regime would gain strategically by constantly bombing ISIS strongholds in Raqqa province, or ISIS strongholds elsewhere, for that matter, located far beyond the frontlines. As in the wider east of Syria, the regime lacks ground forces to launch an offensive to retake any territory in Raqqa province, and must depend on airlifts from elsewhere to maintain its remaining airbases. Hence, the regime is focusing its airstrikes where it has some real expectations of advancing: most notably in Aleppo city.”

Nevertheless, the Syrian air force did take immediate action when ISIL escalated in Mosul in June, which changed the geopolitical dynamic well beyond the Syrian-Iraqi border. Kerry is misleading when he suggests that Assad will not strike ISIL headquarters: this is about timing and gains from both a military and political perspective – not necessarily a response that trigger-happy Americans can understand.

As for accusations that the Syrians have released militants from their prisons to “populate” ideologically extremist rebel groups that will make Assad look like an angel… You can’t have it both ways – political prisoner releases were initiated to defuse conflict and demonstrate leniency. Were some of these prisoners “extremists” of the variety that man Islamist rebel groups? Almost certainly. But that was the Sunni constituency that the Syrian government was also trying to placate in the early days.

Even today, after grueling “reconciliation” negotiations, the Syrian government is allowing these very rebels to “go free”after they lay down their arms – this, according to volunteers involved in negotiations from Homs to Rif Damascus. What is to stop these same “reformed rebels” from hopping over to al-Raqqa and taking up bigger arms? Should the Syrian government kill them instead? How does one win in a situation like this?

Critics of Syria’s prisoner releases should be reminded of the “Big One” carried out by the Americans in 2009 when they allegedly freed future ISIL ‘Caliph’ Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi from an Iraqi prison.

Does anyone have the right to point fingers after that monumental gaff? The fact is – from Saudi Arabia to Qatar, from Turkey to the United States, from Iraq to France – there appears to be plenty of complicity in fueling ISIL and the jihadi phenomenon. Is Syria complicit too? It depends who is asking – and why.

Joe Biden’s latest foot in mouth

Posted on05 October 2014.

Middle East geopolitical analyst, Sharmine Narwani, examines the breathtaking admission by US Vice President Joe Biden that America’s Sunni coalition partners have funded and armed ISIL & Co. None of the major US networks have reported this story yet – that scoop was left to Russia Today and Al Manar. Less mentioned are Biden’s comments that there are no “moderates” among Syria’s opposition fighters. The only moderates inside that country, he stresses, are “shopkeepers, not soldiers.”

Biden may be known to often put his foot in his mouth, but this time he has done the world a favor, notes Ms. Narwani.

By Sharmine Narwani

Joe Biden latest foot-in-mouth comments could scuttle the US’s plans for Syria.

Joe Biden latest foot-in-mouth comments could scuttle the US’s plans for Syria.

When Joe Biden gets candid, he really lets rip. The US vice president, speaking at the John F. Kennedy Jr Forum at Harvard University’s Institute of Politics, on Thursday told his audience – point blank – that America’s Sunni allies are responsible for funding and arming Al Qaeda-type extremists in Syria.

And he named names: Turkey, Saudi Arabia and the UAE, specifically. Others – like Qatar – are undoubtedly complicit too, but Biden’s comments were made off-the-cuff during the question and answer period following his prepared statement.

Of course, much of what Biden said has been suspected for years by Syria watchers, but to acknowledge this outright during the early days of President Barack Obama’s much-vaunted ISIL-busting Coalition – featuring these very same Sunni Arab partners – is a jaw-dropping concession.

But that’s not all. Biden also managed to fundamentally undermine his administration’s efforts to train and arm “moderate” Syrian rebels today, by claiming there is no “moderate middle (in Syria) because the moderate middle are made up of shopkeepers, not soldiers.”

Keep in mind now that just two weeks ago Congress approved – at the request of this White House – $500 million dollars to train and arm “moderate” Syrian rebels. Obama’s second-in-command is saying there are none of those, so who exactly are US forces teaching to fight with heavy weapons in Saudi training camps today?

Let’s go directly to the Q&A session following Biden’s speech. Here is an unedited version taken from the audio recording released on The White House’s YouTube channel:

Question: In retrospect do u believe the United States should have acted earlier in Syria, and if not why is now the right moment?

Biden: The answer is ‘no’ for 2 reasons. One, the idea of identifying a moderate middle has been a chase America has been engaged in for a long time. We Americans think in every country in transition there is a Thomas Jefferson hiding beside some rock – or a James Madison beyond one sand dune. The fact of the matter is the ability to identify a moderate middle in Syria was – there was no moderate middle because the moderate middle are made up of shopkeepers, not soldiers – they are made up of people who in fact have ordinary elements of the middle class of that country. And what happened was – and history will record this because I’m finding that former administration officials, as soon as they leave write books which I think is inappropriate, but anyway, (laughs) no I’m serious – I do think it’s inappropriate at least , you know, give the guy a chance to get out of office. And what my constant cry was that our biggest problem is our allies – our allies in the region were our largest problem in Syria. The Turks were great friends – and I have the greatest relationship with Erdogan, which I just spent a lot of time with – the Saudis, the Emiratis, etc. What were they doing? They were so determined to take down Assad and essentially have a proxy Sunni-Shia war, what did they do? They poured hundreds of millions of dollars and tens, thousands of tons of weapons into anyone who would fight against Assad except that the people who were being supplied were Al Nusra and Al Qaeda and the extremist elements of jihadis coming from other parts of the world. Now you think I’m exaggerating – take a look. Where did all of this go? So now what’s happening? All of a sudden everybody’s awakened because this outfit called ISIL which was Al Qaeda in Iraq, which when they were essentially thrown out of Iraq, found open space in territory in eastern Syria, work with Al Nusra who we declared a terrorist group early on and we could not convince our colleagues to stop supplying them. So what happened? Now all of a sudden – I don’t want to be too facetious – but they had seen the Lord. Now we have – the President’s been able to put together a coalition of our Sunni neighbors, because America can’t once again go into a Muslim nation and be seen as the aggressor – it has to be led by Sunnis to go and attack a Sunni organization. So what do we have for the first time?

The audio clip ends there. While you are taking a moment to readjust your worldview and re-categorize the ‘good guys’ and bad guys,’ do also note the veiled swipe Biden takes at former US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton whose recent book criticizes Obama’s Syria decisions while he is still a sitting president.

Hillary: What difference does it make?

Before you allow Biden to transfer all blame for the radicalism in Syria onto the convenient Muslims-du-jour, consider for a moment the US’s role in all of this.

We have press reports that the CIA was a major conduit for the transfer of weapons from Libya to Syria – a role, no doubt, facilitated by US Ambassador Christopher Stevens who was killed in Benghazi by unknown extremists.

We are also told that the US assisted in the logistics of delivering a Saudi-bankrolled transfer of Croatian weapons in 2012 to Syrian ‘rebels.’ According to the BBC: “The CIA is also reported to have been instrumental in setting up the alleged secret airlift of weapons from Croatia. And here is The Telegraphs take on things:

“The shipments were allegedly paid for by Saudi Arabia at the bidding of the United States, with assistance on supplying the weapons organised through Turkey and Jordan, Syria’s neighbors.”

These weapons were later caught on video in the hands of Ahrar al-Sham, which today is a target of US airstrikes inside Syria. The New York Times goes further:

“With help from the C.I.A., Arab governments and Turkey have sharply increased their military aid to Syria’s opposition fighters in recent months, expanding a secret airlift of arms and equipment for the uprising against President Bashar al-Assad, according to air traffic data, interviews with officials in several countries and the accounts of rebel commanders.”

“From offices at secret locations, American intelligence officers have helped the Arab governments shop for weapons, including a large procurement from Croatia, and have vetted rebel commanders and groups to determine who should receive the weapons as they arrive, according to American officials speaking on the condition of anonymity.”

Exactly how does that exonerate Americans from delivering weapons to “Al Nusra and Al Qaeda?”

Biden’s comments on Thursday were a bombshell that will be heard across the globe. They will fundamentally undermine Obama’s attempts to arm “moderate rebels” and assemble a coalition that includes the very same Sunni Arab states that have helped create ISIL.

So what did the mainstream US media say about it? Nothing. Zip. Nada.

No – wait. There were headlines about Biden’s speech – let me be fair. But this is what CNN, ABC, NBC, CBS and Fox News pulled out of their collective hats:

CNN: “Joe Biden gets colorful on being a VP – and it rhymes with glitch.” This, a reference to Biden’s use of the word “bitch” in jokingly describing the job of a vice president.

CNN (again): “Joe Biden explains how Ebola is like ISIS.”

ABC: “This might be the best thing Joe Biden’s ever said.”  Another reference to the ‘bitch’ comment.

NBC: “Vice President Joe Biden’s Foul-Mouthed Quip on Job Draws Laughs.”  Bitch, again.

CBS: “Joe Biden’s salty description of being VP.”  Yawn.

Fox: “Biden on being Vice President: It’s a b-itch.”  Kill me now.

Enough said. Washington’s partners in fighting extremism – and trampling all over international laws to do it – are the same ones who have fueled it. The Vice President of the United States just said so. And Americans are snickering over the B-word. Leaders of the free world indeed.

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Coalition of the Clueless

Sharmine Narwani is a commentator and analyst of Middle East geopolitics. She tweets @snarwani
Published time: September 25, 2014 19:33
Residents inspect a damaged site after what activists say were four air strikes by forces loyal to Syria's President Bashar al-Assad in Douma, eastern al-Ghouta, near Damascus September 24, 2014 (Reuters / Bassam Khabieh)
Residents inspect a damaged site after what activists say were four air strikes by forces loyal to Syria’s President Bashar al-Assad in Douma, eastern al-Ghouta, near Damascus September 24, 2014 (Reuters / Bassam Khabieh)
This US-engineered Coalition is in for some surprises. With few common goals, it has thrust itself into battle against the most determined players in the region and beyond.
The airwaves are still heaving with spin two days after US airstrikes against Syria.
Undoubtedly the attacks were timed to occur on the eve of the annual gathering of world leaders at the United Nations, so ‘Coalition’ partners could cluster behind the decision to bomb a sovereign state, uninvited.
The irony, of course, is that they are doing so at the UN – the global political body that pledges to uphold international law, peace and stability, and the sanctity of the nation-state unit.
The goal this week will be to keep the ‘momentum’ on a ‘narrative’ until it sinks in.
On day one, heads of state from Turkey, Jordan, Qatar, the UK and France were paraded onto the podium to drum in the urgency of American strikes against the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (ISIL), Jabhat al-Nusra and other militant groups inside Syria.
Every American official – past and present – in the White House rolodex was hooked up to a microphone to deliver canned sound bites and drive home those ‘messages.’ In between, video-game-quality footage of US strikes hitting their targets was aired on the hour; clips of sleek fighter jets refueling midair and the lone Arab female fighter pilot were dropped calculatingly into social media networks.
69th United Nations General Assembly at the U.N. headquarters in New York, September 24, 2014 (Reuters / Mike Segar)
69th United Nations General Assembly at the U.N. headquarters in New York, September 24, 2014 (Reuters / Mike Segar)
The global crew of journalists that descends annually on the UN for this star-studded political event, enthused over US President Barak Obama’s ability to forge a coalition that included five Arab Sunni states – Saudi Arabia, Qatar, Jordan, Bahrain and the UAE.
Few mentioned that these partners are a mere fig leaf for Obama, providing his Syria campaign with Arab and Muslim legitimacy where he otherwise would have none. Not that any of these five monarchies enjoy ‘legitimacy’ in their own kingdoms – kings and emirs aren’t elected after all – and two of these Wahhabi states are directly responsible for the growth and proliferation of the Wahhabi-style extremism targeted by US missiles.
Even fewer spent time dissecting the legality of US attacks on Syria or on details of the US ‘mission’ – as in, “what next?”
But with a mission this crippled at the outset, it didn’t take long for an alternative view to peek through the thick media fog.
On the ground in Syria, dead civilians – some of them children killed by US bombs – muddied the perfect script. Confused Syrian rebels – many who had called for foreign intervention to help crush the government of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad – demanded to know how these airstrikes were meant to help them.
Sunni Arabs would be radicalized by these strikes, they warned, as ideologically sympathetic citizens of the Arab coalition states took to their information channels and swore revenge for airstrikes against ISIL and al-Nusra.
The Syrian government, for the most part, remained mute – whether to save face or because they could ‘smell’ the gains coming. Contrary to Washington’s prevailing narrative, privately the story was that the US had informed the Assad government of both the timing and targets of the attacks in advance.
Residents inspect a damaged site after what activists say were four air strikes by forces loyal to Syria's President Bashar al-Assad in Douma, eastern al-Ghouta, near Damascus September 24, 2014. (Reuters/Bassam Khabieh)
Residents inspect a damaged site after what activists say were four air strikes by forces loyal to Syria’s President Bashar al-Assad in Douma, eastern al-Ghouta, near Damascus September 24, 2014. (Reuters/Bassam Khabieh)
Sources say that the US even provided ‘guarantees’ that no Syrian military or government interests would be targeted. A Reuters exclusive claiming that the US went so far as to provide assurances to Iran, suggests this version is closer to the truth. When US airstrikes against Syria were on the table a year ago, the various parties went through a similar game of footsies. Last September, the Americans backed off – allegedly because of communications from their adversaries that even a single US missile would trigger a warfront against Israel. This time, Washington needed to know that scenario was not going to be activated, and this week they offered the necessary guarantees to ensure it.
Although the Russians and Iranians have publicly lashed out at the illegality of US strikes, they do not seem too worried. Both know – like the Syrian government – that these air attacks could be a net gain for their ‘Axis.’
Firstly, the United States is now doing some useful heavy-lifting for Assad, at no real cost to him. The Syrian armed forces have spent little time on the ISIL threat because their focus has traditionally been on protecting their interests in Aleppo, Damascus, Homs, Hama – and the countryside in these areas – as well as towns and cities around the Lebanese and Jordanian borders. That changed when ISIL staged successful attacks on Mosul and created new geopolitical urgency for Assad’s allies – which triggered some major Syrian strikes against ISIL targets.
But to continue along this path, the Syrians would have to divert energy and resources from key battles, and so the American strikes have provided a convenient solution for the time being.
Secondly, the Syrians have spent three years unsuccessfully pushing their narrative that the terrorism threat they face internally is going to become a regional and global problem. The US campaign is a Godsend in this respect – Obama has managed to get the whole world singing from the same hymn sheet in just two months, including, and this is important, the three states – Saudi Arabia, Qatar and Turkey – most instrumental in financing, weaponizing and assisting ISIL and other extremist militias inside Syria.
Syria, Iran, Russia, Hezbollah and a host of like-minded emerging powers are pleased about this new laser focus on jihadi terror and for the accompanying resource shift to address the problem.
Thirdly, the US has now been placed in the hot seat and will be expected to match words with action. For three years, Washington has overlooked and even encouraged illegal and dangerous behaviors from its regional Sunni allies – all in service of defeating Assad. With all eyes on America and expectations that Obama will fail in his War on Terror just like his predecessors, the US is going to have to pull some impressive tricks from its sleeves.
Syria's President Bashar al-Assad. (Reuters/Handout)
Syria’s President Bashar al-Assad. (Reuters/Handout)
Ideally, these would include the shutting down of key border crossings (Turkey, Jordan, Lebanon); punishing financiers of terror and inhibiting the flow of funds and assistance from Washington’s regional allies; cutting off key revenue streams; tightening immigration policies to stem the flow of foreign fighters; disrupting communications networks of targeted terrorist groups; broader intelligence sharing with all regional players; and empowering existing armies and allied militias inside the ‘chaos zone’ to lead and execute ground operations.
Thus far, there are signs that some of these things are already happening, with possibly more to come.
Now for the fun part. The Syrians, Iranians and Russians do not fundamentally trust Washington or its intentions. The suspicion is that the US is on another one of its regime-change missions, displaying its usual rogue-state behavior by violating the territorial integrity of a sovereign state under false pretenses, and that it will shortly revert to targeting the Syrian government.
While they can see clear gains from the current level of US intervention – as distasteful as they find it – they are watching carefully as events unfold.
If there is the slightest deviation from the ‘guarantees’ provided by the US, this trio has plenty of room to maneuver. Iran, for one, has dallied with the Americans in both Iraq and Afghanistan and they know how to cause some pain where it counts. The Russians, for that matter, have many playgrounds in which to thwart US ambitions – most urgently in Ukraine and in Afghanistan, from which the US hopes to withdraw billions of dollars’ worth of military equipment by the end of 2014.
All understand that Washington has just assumed a risky public posture and that many, many things can go wrong. The Sunni Arab fig leaf can disappear in a nano-second if domestic pressures mount or revenge attacks take place internally. Information could leak about continued assistance to terrorist militias from one or more of its coalition partners – a huge embarrassment for Washington and its wobbly Coalition. ISIL will almost certainly act against coalition partner soft-targets, like carrying out further kidnappings and executions. Continued airstrikes will almost definitely result in a growing civilian casualty count, turning those ‘hearts and minds’ to stone. Syrian rebels could swiftly turn against the US intervention and radicalize further. Massive displacement caused by airstrikes could exacerbate the humanitarian crisis.And as in all other past US military War-on-Terror adventures, terrorism could thrive and proliferate in quantum leaps.
As Moscow-based political analyst Vladimir Frolov noted to the Washington Post: “The United States has underestimated the complexity of the situation before, so let’s just wait until they run into problems.”
Militant Islamist fighters travel in a vehicle as they take part in a military parade along the streets of Syria's northern Raqqa province June 30, 2014. (Reuters/Striker)
Militant Islamist fighters travel in a vehicle as they take part in a military parade along the streets of Syria’s northern Raqqa province June 30, 2014. (Reuters/Striker)
The idea that US military engagement could continue for the long-term is unlikely given the myriad things that can go wrong fast. Obama is going to be reluctant to have his last two years in office defined by the hazardous Syrian conflict – after all, he was to be the president who extracted America from unessential wars.
But the most compelling reason that this Coalition will not pass the first hurdle is that its key members have entirely different ambitions and strategic targets.
Over a decade ago, these US-engineered coalitions were wealthier, less-burdened and shared common goals. Today, many of the coalition members face domestic economic and political uncertainties – and several states are directly responsible for giving rise to ISIL. How can the Coalition fight ISIL and support it, all at once?
What’s missing is a formula, a strategy, a unified worldview that can be equally as determined as the ideological adversary it faces.
Down the road, we will discover that the only coalition able and willing to fight extremism does indeed come from inside the region, but importantly, from within the conflict zone itself: Lebanon, Syria, Iraq and Iran. For starters, they are utterly vested in the outcome of their efforts – and would lead with political solutions alongside military ones. Those elusive boots-on-the-ground that everyone is seeking? They live it. Pit that group against Obama’s Coalition-of-the-Clueless any day and you know which side would win handily.
The question is, can this Coalition stomach a solution it is working so hard to avoid? Will it partner with vital regional players that were foes only a few months ago? It is doubtful. That would require a worldview shift that Washington is still too irrational to embrace.
The statements, views and opinions expressed in this column are solely those of the author and do not necessarily represent those of RT.

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Sharmine Narwani interview on ISIS [VIDEO]

Sep 14, 2014,


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Another ceasefire in Gaza? No, thank you

Published time: September 03, 2014

A Palestinian sits under a tent next to houses that witnesses said were heavy shelled by Israel during the offensive, in the Shejaia neighbourhood east of Gaza City August 31, 2014. (Reuters)

A Palestinian sits under a tent next to houses that witnesses said were heavy shelled by Israel during the offensive, in the Shejaia neighbourhood east of Gaza City August 31, 2014. (Reuters)

Last week, Palestinians and Israelis agreed to yet another ceasefire of hostilities in the Gaza Strip.

Palestinians appeared triumphant. After more than 2,100 mostly-civilian deaths, tens of thousands injured or displaced and chunks of Gaza buried under rubble, they managed to get Israel to serve up some“concessions.”

Israelis seemed decidedly glum. Only 69 died, but there was no decisive “victory”either, which always rankles with the IDF and makes politicians drop in the polls.

There was more bad news for Israel. The IDF launched a major air and ground military offensives and did not come close to destroying its adversaries’ leadership, organization, military capabilities and alliances. During the seven weeks of brutal attacks against the densely-populated civilian centers, Israel managed to put the Palestinian issue back on the Arab map, draw unprecedented global censure, and give wings to the Boycott, Divestment & Sanctions (BDS) campaign to undermine Israel’s economy. Israel also managed to unify Palestinian political parties across the board – a minor miracle – and make regional heroes out of the “Palestinian Resistance.” With every lash of Israel’s whip, Palestinians found new determination to break the siege of Gaza and end Israel’s occupation.

That’s all well and good, but here’s what needs to be clear: Palestinians did not achieve their goals either.

So then, what’s with all the jubilation over a mere “ceasefire?” When did countless dozens of ceasefires ever end the siege of Gaza or end the occupation? Did ceasefires ever stop Palestinians from getting killed? Did homes and mosques and schools and playgrounds ever get built because of a ceasefire? Did coastal Gaza ever grow lush and rich and free with an Israeli “ceasefire?”

Of course not.

Israel loves ceasefires. It is part of the occupation game. Every so often, Israel flexes its muscles and beats up Gaza. The trigger doesn’t even have to come from Gaza – the place is simply a convenient punching bag and is easily justified by the“Hamas-Terror” language beamed through western media.

The goal is always the same, regardless of what the Israelis publicly claim: To take down Hamas & Company a notch or two; to inflict pain on the population of Gaza in hope that they will turn on their leaders; to cripple Gaza enough to keep Palestinians busy rebuilding lives, but not fighting occupation.

The ideal Gaza attack is short and brutal. The longer it continues, the harder it becomes for Israel to control all the “variables” of conflict, and the more likely it is to “incur loss.” Israeli casualties, surprise Palestinian weapons/tactics, negative publicity…these kinds of things can make a routine exercise of “punishing Gaza” into a public relations disaster for a sitting Israeli prime minister.

So a short-and-brutal Gaza attack is always key.

Palestinians Hamas supporters celebrate with people what they said was a victory over Israel, in Gaza City August 27, 2014. (Reuters)

Palestinians Hamas supporters celebrate with people what they said was a victory over Israel, in Gaza City August 27, 2014. (Reuters)

Israel pursues ceasefires from almost the moment it kicks off an assault. Not directly – that would appear weak – but through interested parties that “seek to promote peace.”

And ceasefires they get. Palestinians in Gaza are naturally grateful for the lull in violence, international players pat themselves on the back for doing something about the “Palestinian-Israeli conflict,” and Israelis are satisfied that they have met each and every one of their goals.

Until Israel decides Gaza needs another beating.

Who breaks the ceasefires?

A 2009 study that tracked patterns of violence between Israelis and Palestinians in Gaza over the course of 8 years reveals some astonishing data. Unlike what western mainstream media coverage of the conflict suggests, Israel violates the vast majority of ceasefires by “killing a Palestinian” first.

MIT’s Nancy Kanwisher, Princeton University’s Johannes Haushofer and Tel Aviv University’s Anat Biletzki concluded the following in their exhaustive study:

“It is overwhelmingly Israel that kills first after a pause in the conflict: 79 percent of all conflict pauses were interrupted when Israel killed a Palestinian, while only 8 percent were interrupted by Palestinian attacks (the remaining 13 percent were interrupted by both sides on the same day). In addition, we found that this pattern — in which Israel is more likely than Palestine to kill first after a conflict pause — becomes more pronounced for longer conflict pauses. Indeed, of the 25 periods of nonviolence lasting longer than a week, Israel unilaterally interrupted 24, or 96 percent, and it unilaterally interrupted 100 percent of the 14 periods of nonviolence lasting longer than 9 days.”

In short, Israel can’t sit still when things are calm in Gaza for too long.

The study also manages to debunk a widespread Israeli myth about its need to retaliate against “Palestinian rockets.” The researchers amassed precise quantitative data from the IDF and Israeli human rights group B’Tselem on the numbers of Qassam rockets fired between January 2001 and April 2008: “3,645 Qassam rockets fired, but only 15 associated fatalities.”

The researchers then tracked Israeli actions before and after the rocket firings in order to ascertain if their reactions were retaliatory or not (the study tracks the same behaviors for Palestinians).

Seven years of data demonstrates that “Israeli military actions against Palestinians may lead to escalation of violence rather than incapacitation of Palestinian military operations against Israel.” In other words, Israel knows full well that attacks on Palestinians results in “escalation” of conflict.

The report arrives at a startling conclusion after examining the data patterns:

“If prevention of attacks was the main reason for Israeli attacks, one would expect Israeli killings of Palestinians to occur not only before but also after rocket attacks; in fact, one might argue that killings of Palestinians by Israel should increase strongly following rocket attacks, reflecting Israeli operations to shut down the cells that were responsible for the attacks. However, we find that killings of Palestinians by Israel do not in fact increase significantly following rocket attacks. This result suggests that the killings of Palestinians by Israel preceding rocket attacks are usually not preventative measures to suppress rocket attacks.”

If no ceasefire, then what?

Israel has managed to create a conflict-within-a-conflict: all eyes are on Gaza’s next ceasefire, not on ending the occupation. The terms of most of these ceasefires are violated, either immediately or shortly thereafter. After the last major escalation in November 2012, the ceasefire deal was never implemented. There was simply no mechanism for enforcing the agreement, and there never will be one. It is like the Oslo Agreement – a never-ending “process” that doesn’t ever outline the end game, but leaves things up to “further discussion.”

An Israeli soldier directs a tank onto a truck at a staging area near the border with the Gaza Strip August 27, 2014. (Reuters)

An Israeli soldier directs a tank onto a truck at a staging area near the border with the Gaza Strip August 27, 2014. (Reuters)

Israel has also cleverly managed to limit its military theater to Gaza. No more battling across borders with Arab states; no more “Intifadas” in the West Bank and East Jerusalem. Israel today has managed to not only physically “Balkanize”Palestinian territories, but also to mentally Balkanize them.

Palestinians are the only ones that can break the occupation and force an end-game, but this will not come about playing by Israel’s rules. Gaza may be the last battlefield, but it is a powerful one. Israel loses every single day it fights with Palestinians – each day brings undeterminable risk to the entire colonial enterprise that is the “Jewish State.”

Palestinian-born Adnan Abu Odeh, a trustee of the International Crisis Group (ICG) and former Jordanian minister, senator and chief of the royal court to King Hussein, framed it this way last week:

“Israel’s locomotive is Zionism. The issue with Israel’s conflicts with Gaza and with southern Lebanon is not about how many Israelis were killed. The issue to them is deeper. Israel is based on two things: bringing Jews from all over world to Israel (Aliyah) and keeping Jews there. Gaza and Lebanon hurt them this way – Jews who want to immigrate to Israel will hesitate. And those already there, they are thinking whether they made a mistake. This is a strike at the core of Zionism.”

Beating up on Gaza periodically is one way of allaying Jewish fears. “See, we are strong, we are masterful, we have this Iron Dome.”

But to see Gaza unbowed after 50 days of conflict – the missile capabilities of Palestinian Resistance undiminished, irrespective of “targeted” Israeli operations… That makes Israelis think twice.

What if Palestinians in Gaza did not cease fire? What if nobody and nothing could halt Palestinian outrage and determination to battle through? What if all“concessions”’ were rejected and only a total and immediate end to Israel’s occupation would stop the fight?

What would Israel do? Would it kill every Palestinian in Gaza? Could it bomb any more schools than it already has? When Palestinians inside Gaza swear allegiance to “Resistance” more than Palestinians outside, who has the right to thwart that spirit?

Israel is built on a narrative of persecution and genocide. There is a point at which killing Palestinians triggers vastly “diminishing returns” and we started seeing that as Palestinian casualties rose toward a horrifying new threshold of 2,000 deaths, and the term “genocide” started to be commonly used in relation to Israel’s behavior.

But when the Palestinian Resistance accepted Tel Aviv’s latest ceasefire, it took that tally down to zero. Next time around, the international community starts counting at “0” and Israel knows full well that it has conditioned people to tolerate a 1,000-2,000 casualty “result.”

The question is: can Gaza afford to stop fighting until it affects fundamental change in Israel’s behavior – until it establishes “deterrence” against further attack or halts the occupation? I think not. The biggest mistake Palestinians made with the first and second Intifadas was halting them and making “deals.”

Israel’s greatest fear is that Palestinians will break out of the ordered processes and patterns set up to control them. That would mean NOT accepting a deal; not participating in the ceasefire game. It also means – and this is crucial – rejecting Oslo, dismantling the compliant Palestinian Authority, reinstating the inclusive PLO as the “sole legitimate representatives of the Palestinian people.”

A wheelchair is seen as Palestinians stand atop the ruins of the headquarters of El-Wafa rehabilitation hospital, which witnesses said was destroyed during a seven-week Israeli offensive, in the east of Gaza City August 28, 2014. (Reuters)

A wheelchair is seen as Palestinians stand atop the ruins of the headquarters of El-Wafa rehabilitation hospital, which witnesses said was destroyed during a seven-week Israeli offensive, in the east of Gaza City August 28, 2014. (Reuters)

Moreover, it means embracing armed resistance against Israel as a tenet of the struggle against occupation. You need the “stick” to make the “carrot” more palatable– an obvious tactic that somehow manages to elude the “well-behaved natives” that head the PA.

Five days after the latest ceasefire went into effect, Israel announced its biggest land-grab in 30 years, from five Palestinian villages in the West Bank.

On the same day, Israel began its game of unraveling ceasefire “concessions” by insisting on more “process.” A key ceasefire deal term was to allow Palestinians to import building materials to help rebuild the devastation in Gaza. After 50 days of negotiations, Tel Aviv now insists a “bilateral committee” be established to oversee this process, consisting of Israel, the PA and the UN? This post-deal demand, the Israelis know, means that All Things will perpetually be tied up in “discussions.”

Ceasefire? Please.

Israel and its western/Arab allies have a goal. They plan to dismantle the Palestinian Resistance in this last Gaza battlefield. To do that, they will carefully begin to insert their PA partners into all aspects of Gaza’s administration. We will see more initiatives like this after US Secretary of State John Kerry’s upcoming visit to the region. His Saudi and Egyptian partners are on board. Israel will lead this game.

What should Gaza do? It should beef up its existing alliances and continue stockpiling its weapons arsenal. Israel must continue to endure losses, experience pain, and watch its citizens flee the “unpredictability” – take their second passportsand leave. There is absolutely no other way forward – none whatsoever.

Palestinians will never have political chips worth a dime in negotiations with a right-wing Israeli administration unless they can affect the “Aliyah” of Jews to Israel.

Ceasefire? A hollow victory indeed.

Sharmine Narwani for RT

Follow@snarwanion Twitter

Western focus on ‘delegitimizing’ Syria election

Published time: June 04, 2014 13:21

Syrians cast their ballots in the Syrian presidential elections at a polling station in the city of Homs, north of Damascus, on June 3, 2014. (AFP Photo/Joseph Eid)

Syrians cast thir ballots in the Syrian presidential elections at a polling station in the city of Homs, north of Damascus, on June 3, 2014. (AFP Photo/Joseph Eid)

Of course these Syrian presidential elections must be the ‘parody’ and ‘farce’ that Western officials and media are relentlessly claiming.

Because if Bashar Assad wins handily in the first multi-candidate presidential elections in Syria – which all evidence suggests will be the case – that would mean that a majority of Syrians support Assad, the army, the state and ‘the system’.

Which immediately calls into question the past three years of conflict: was there ever actually a widespread, popular uprising against Bashar Assad?

Well, no – not if Assad wins a respectable majority on June 3, 2014, and more importantly, if a significant percentage of Syrians take the trouble to actually show up and vote.

Voter turnout is critical in these elections. Syria’s foes will go to the wall with claims of fraudulent votes, but they can hardly contest the visuals of millions of Syrians casting them.

Which is why Western ‘democracies’ and many Arab allies have sought to inhibit the democratic process by obstructing Syrians from voting at their embassies. It is embarrassing for them then that thousands of Syrian refugees have crossed the Lebanese border to vote (Lebanon initially threatened they would not be able to return), and that Syrians from the United States, Kuwait, UAE, France, the Netherlands and elsewhere have chartered flights to Damascus so their votes can be counted.

It is also why Syrian rebels have shelled and bombed their way across Aleppo, Homs and other areas in the lead-up to the elections: a threat for voters to stay home.

Different support

Legitimacy. It is what Syrians are seeking to establish with these elections, and what their adversaries are trying hard to deny. You can intervene to aid a population against an illegitimate government. But you would be in contravention of international law if you did so against a state that enjoys legitimacy. It would be an act of war to supply weapons, train mercenaries, to fund and fuel conflict. It would be ‘subverting the will of the Syrian people’.

While Western audiences express surprise and skepticism at scenes of Syrians flocking to cast votes for Assad, foreign officials everywhere knew this would happen. This is the dirty little secret that Assad’s adversaries have spent three years trying to bury: the president has always clearly maintained a small majority of Syrian support.

Karen Koning AbuZayd, UN commissioner for the Independent International Commission of Inquiry for Syria, was one of the first officials to publically acknowledge support for Assad in early 2013, saying, “There’s quite a number of the population, maybe as many as half – if not more – that stand behind him.”

A handout picture released by the official Syrian Arab News Agency (SANA) shows Syrian President Bashar al-Assad (C) watching on as his wife Asma casts her vote at a polling station in Maliki, a residential area in the centre of the capital Damascus, in the country's presidential elections on June 3, 2014, which are expected to give Assad a sweeping win over two little-known challengers, state television reported. (AFP/SANA)

A handout picture released by the official Syrian Arab News Agency (SANA) shows Syrian President Bashar al-Assad (C) watching on as his wife Asma casts her vote at a polling station in Maliki, a residential area in the centre of the capital Damascus, in the country’s presidential elections on June 3, 2014, which are expected to give Assad a sweeping win over two little-known challengers, state television reported. (AFP/SANA)

In February, Iran’s Ambassador to Lebanon Dr. Ghazanfar Roknabadi publicly quoted the pleas of UN Under-Secretary-General Jeffrey Feltman, during a visit with Iranian officials in Tehran, to nix Assad’s participation in Syrian elections because, “If he runs, he will win the elections.”

If it were possible to suspend the enormous weight of Western media disinformation for a moment, the reason for Assad’s continued support during the past three years is fairly logical:

1) The president never lost the support of his core constituencies – the Syrian armed forces, the government and business elite, the major cities, the minorities (Christians, Druze, Alawites, Shia etc.) and secular Sunni (most of the 3 million members of the Baath Party are Sunni).

2) The opposition was fundamentally unable to present a cohesive front and a common political platform – this includes both domestic and external opponents – let alone rally behind a single candidate.

This is why, if Syrian National Coalition (SNC) President Ahmad Jarba himself were running against Assad in verifiably-fraud-proof elections, he would lose.

Jarba is, of course, the Syrian candidate that most Western nations and many Arab League member states have rallied behind – even though he received only 55 Syrian votes to gain this unusual ‘legitimacy’.

Assad will likely garner millions of votes, but those nations insisting on Syrian‘democracy’ and ‘legitimacy’ are happy to hand over Syria’s embassies to a man with 55 votes. Is this a farce? Or is it a parody?

“How can you hold elections during a war/conflict/humanitarian crisis?” these opponents demand. None, of course, objected when elections were held in US- and NATO-occupied Afghanistan and Iraq, under the auspices and direction of the occupying army. Some elections enjoy ‘legitimacy’ just because we say so, apparently.

No matter what

For a bit of unexpected comic relief, Jarba penned a Washington Post opinion piece on Monday in which he invokes former US President Abraham Lincoln. Did nobody tell Jarba that Lincoln was re-elected during the most brutal domestic conflict in American history – that thing called the Civil War?

In fact, 11 US states (including important ones like Texas, Virginia and Florida) where Lincoln barely received votes, got so upset when he was first elected they decided to leave the Union. Lincoln fought a war to defeat those ‘rebels’ and went on to be immortalized on the $5 bill.

Lincoln’s re-election in 1864 was viewed as a referendum on the direction of the then-three-year Civil War. If he won, it meant Americans backed the Union’s military campaign against the south; if he lost it would undermine the legitimacy of the war effort. He was asked to postpone the election, but rejected that proposal saying, “We cannot have free government without elections; and if the rebellion could force us to forego or postpone a national election, it might already fairly claim to have conquered and ruined us.”

Another criticism lobbied by opponents is that Syrians outside of government-controlled areas can’t vote. Well, that’s true, but this is because rebels won’t allow it. However, it should be noted that most of the millions of displaced Syrians have fled these rebel-controlled areas and are now mostly in government-controlled areas, where they can cast votes.

Doesn’t that still disenfranchise potentially millions of Syrians who won’t be able to vote? Yes, possibly. But that didn’t stop these same Western countries from declaring the recent Ukrainian elections a resounding success, even though there was virtually no voting in the Donetsk and Lugansk Regions.

The first US presidential election in 1789 didn’t even count the votes of North Carolina, New York and Rhode Island, even though the Union was only made up of 13 states at the time. George Washington ran uncontested and most of the votes were not cast by American citizens, but by unelected delegates. And he too has been immortalized on US currency –on the dollar bill.

Syrian expatriates living in Lebanon cast their ballots in the country's presidential elections at the Syrian Embassy in Yarze east of Beirut on May 28, 2014. (AFP Photo/Joseph Eid)

Syrian expatriates living in Lebanon cast their ballots in the country’s presidential elections at the Syrian Embassy in Yarze east of Beirut on May 28, 2014. (AFP Photo/Joseph Eid)

A parody of democracy? Oh, most certainly a farce. Americans have FOUR times cast votes for a president that the electoral college didn’t select. The most recent being in 2000, when over 1 million more Americans cast votes for Al Gore than for George W. Bush, but the latter won the presidency because of some 500 Florida votes that the US Supreme Court refused to recount.

No elections seem to be without irregularities these days, so voter participation really does become a factor in gauging ‘legitimacy’. Do citizens have enough trust in their system of governance to want to engage?

Let’s look at some recent elections to get a sense of ‘legitimacy’. Nearly 73 percent of eligible Iranians cast votes in the 2013 presidential elections; in the hotly contested 2009 elections, that number was close to 85 percent. In Venezuela, 79 percent cast votes in 2013, and 80 percent in 2012 for the late Hugo Chavez. The Russian presidential elections in 2012 saw a participation rate of 65 percent, while the last US elections ushering in Barack Obama’s second term recorded a 57-percent voter turnout. Winning a whopping 92 percent of the vote, new Egyptian President Abdel Fattah Sisi only managed to attract 46 percent of voters to the ballot box last month. In Iraq’s April election, some statistics suggest a 60 percent turnout, but voting was restricted or nonexistent in parts of Anbar province, with troops surrounding Fallujah and street battles in Ramadi. Afghanistan’s election, while lauded by its occupiers for the massive turnout (no actual figures yet available), was also distinguished by the fact that 1,000 of the anticipated 7,500 polling centers were closed because of potential threat of violence.

In short, elections these days are all over the place. They take place in wartime; they take place under occupation. Voters participate heavily in some, and shun others – war or peace makes little difference, it seems.

On Tuesday, Syrians cast votes across much of their country. The situation was not ideal. Millions are displaced, a war rages, all Syrians do not have access to polls. But Syrians still turned out in force – to the surprise of many – to participate in forging the direction of their nation. Do they love Bashar Assad or do they just seek stability? Who cares? If voter turnout is large and the winning candidate is selected by a wide margin, this speaks directly to what ‘the Syrian people’ have decided.

Legitimacy can only be conferred by the citizens within a nation – this is never an issue that can be decided by foreigners outside a country, no matter how much the headlines blare it to sway perception.

Farce? Parody? Tell it to Abe Lincoln. And then go mind your own business.

That’s the thing about elections, they tell a very particular story. You can choose not to listen, you can toy with the tale, but you can’t change the ending.

River to Sea Uprooted Palestinian   

The views expressed in this article are the sole responsibility of the author and do not necessarily reflect those of the Blog!

Please, Ambassador Ford. Name me a “moderate” Syrian rebel

US-designated Syrian terrorist group Jabhat al-Nusra with an American-made TOW Missile in its possession.

Jun 4, 2014, Mideast Shuffle

Former US Ambassador to Syria Robert Ford said in an interview yesterday to PBS Newshour:

“We need – and we have long needed – to help moderates in the Syrian opposition with both weapons and other non-lethal assistance.”

“Had we done that a couple of years ago, had we ramped it up, frankly the al Qaeda groups that have been winning adherents would have been unable to compete with the moderates who frankly we have much in common with,” he continued.

That’s great, Ambassador Ford. Now can you kindly put us out of our misery and name these Syrian “moderate” rebel groups? For any Syrian rebels to take the lead on the ground, they must be able to command a good 50,000 men…but I’ll settle for the name of a moderate fighting force that can can command 5,000.

Okay then – 500?

Please, Mr. Ambassador. I am now begging you to give me the name of these moderate Syrian rebels. Okay, maybe they’ve all been wiped out or marginalized now, but what about a year ago – when your boss Secretary of State John Kerry was champing at the bit to start arming the “moderates?”

Kerry, as you may recall, told us conclusively during a trip to Riyadh in March 2013 that:

“There is a very clear ability now in the Syrian opposition to make certain that what goes to the moderate, legitimate opposition is, in fact, getting to them, and the indication is that they are increasing their pressure as a result of that.”

I was transfixed. Fascinated. The Americans had found moderate Syrian rebels (who actually participate in battle) and could now guarantee that weapons would get directly to them – and more importantly – stay with them.

I immediately pounded out an email to one of my media contacts at the US State Department (I will call him/her “Ben Spox” to preserve his/her identity), eager to find out the names of these Syrian moderates. Here’s how that correspondence went:

From: Sharmine
Sent: Tuesday, March 05, 2013 7:51 AM
To: Ben Spox
Subject: Query


Could you please give me the names of some of the “moderate” Syrian rebels that Sec of State Kerry is thinking of assisting? If that is confidential, could you just provide me with any names of “moderate” armed groups in Syria that you folks are aware of? Would be helpful if you could give me a sense of their size…and how you determine they are “moderate.”

He also says in this NYT piece ( “There is a very clear ability now in the Syrian opposition to make certain that what goes to the moderate, legitimate opposition is, in fact, getting to them.”

Can you give me any idea of how this can be ascertained when weapons provided to Libyans are now flooding Mali and Syria?


Kind regards,


From: Ben Spox
To: Sharmine

On background attributable to “A State Department spokesman”:

· Our goal is to see a Syrian-led transition that enjoys widespread support and legitimacy within Syria and defends the rights and interests of all Syrians regardless of their ethnicity, religion, or gender. The opposition has articulated a common vision and transition plan for Syria that offers a credible alternative to the Asad regime’s tyranny. We support this vision.

· As we work to accelerate a political transition, we are providing more non-lethal support to the opposition, including communications gear and training, support for transition planning, media support and training, and a variety of programs to support civil society and capacity building to ensure that the opposition can continue its cause and that the needs of civilians on the ground are met.

· I would also draw your attention to our newest fact sheet,

From: Sharmine
Sent: Tuesday, March 05, 2013 8:16 AM
To: Ben Spox
Subject: Re: Query


Thanks for this, but I’m asking for specific names of “moderate” rebel groups on the ground in Syria. Or are you counting on those outside the country to funnel this assistance entirely? Either way, I am sure you folks have specified the recipients.

So, if you please, kindly provide me with names of individuals or group recipients inside Syrian territory who are “moderates.”




From: Ben Spox
To: Sharmine

I encourage you to look over the public remarks made by Secretary in Rome and Riyadh.

From: Sharmine
Sent: Tuesday, March 05, 2013 8:29 AM
To: Ben Spox
Subject: Re: Query


I did look at his public comments in those two places – some are even in the NYT article link I sent you:

“There is no guarantee that one weapon or another might not at some point in time fall into the wrong hands,” Mr. Kerry said in a joint news conference in Riyadh with the Saudi foreign minister, Prince Saud al-Faisal. “But I will tell you this: There is a very clear ability now in the Syrian opposition to make certain that what goes to the moderate, legitimate opposition is, in fact, getting to them, and the indication is that they are increasing their pressure as a result of that.”

I want to know if you folks can actually name any moderate groups inside Syria that Secretary Kerry is referencing above? We have heard reports for months that there are no rebel groups worth their salt that are not Islamist and militant in nature…so what are these “moderate” rebel groups the secretary is referencing?

You folks are very specifically setting a scene that suggests there are “moderate” rebels inside Syria who will be receiving tens of millions of dollars of US taxpayer funds. You are going to great lengths to assure people that none of this will be diverted to jihadist or militant groups who may then turn their weapons on Americans or their allies.

So, then, who are these groups? Specifically.



From: Ben Spox
To: Sharmine

Sharmine – The public comments are where we are right now. I do not have additional information to provide at this time.

From: Sharmine
Sent: Tuesday, March 05, 2013 08:56 AM
To: Ben Spox
Subject: Re: Query

Ben, forget the context of US assistance going to these “moderate” groups for one second. At this point – and, truthfully, as a result of your responses to me – I am now just genuinely curious to know if anyone at the State Department can even name a “moderate” rebel group inside Syria.

Can you kindly direct me to someone there who could possibly help me out on this? It would be a tremendous help in allaying my growing concern that Secretary Kerry himself cannot name a single Syrian “moderate” rebel group.

I apologize for my tone – but seriously, does he think he can just say things like this with no oversight or questions? My query is a simple one and is based entirely on the secretary’s claim that he now has a “very clear ability” to bypass the bad guys.’ I’m not even yet asking how he knows he can do that. I’m just asking for the name of one single ‘good guy.’

Could you please refer me to somebody else for this information?


From: Ben Spox
To: Sharmine

Sharmine, thank you for your inquiry. You may use my responses below to inform your reporting. Attribution in background to “a State Department Spokesman.”


Suffice it to say, I have remained painfully frustrated for over a year now in my continuing quest to get US officials to name these moderate Syrian rebels. I wait in hope that one US journalist in the State Department press pool decides to join this quest.

In the meantime, please, Ambassador Ford. Be a gentleman and name them.



River to Sea Uprooted Palestinian   

The views expressed in this article are the sole responsibility of the author and do not necessarily reflect those of the Blog!

Syria: The hidden massacre by Sharmine Narwani

“at least part of the Syrian “opposition” was from the earliest days, armed, organized, and targeting security forces as a matter of strategy – in all likelihood, to elicit a response that would ensure continued escalation.”

by Sharmine Narwani

The attack took place shortly after the first stirrings of trouble in the southern Syrian city of Daraa in March 2011.

A picture shows courthouse that was torched a day earlier by angry protesters in the southern town of Daraa, 100 kms (60 miles) south of Damascus, on March 21, 2011 following a demonstration demanding "freedom" and an end to 48 years of emergency laws in Syria under President Bashar al-Assad and his father Hafez. (AFP Photo / Louai Beshara)

Several old Russian-made military trucks packed with Syrian security forces rolled onto a hard slope on a valley road between Daraa al-Mahata and Daraa al-Balad. Unbeknown to the passengers, the sloping road was slick with oil poured by gunmen waiting to ambush the troops.

Brakes were pumped as the trucks slid into each other, but the shooting started even before the vehicles managed to roll to a stop. According to several different opposition sources, up to 60 Syrian security forces were killed that day in a massacre that has been hidden by both the Syrian government and residents of Daraa.

One Daraa native explains: “At that time, the government did not want to show they are weak and the opposition did not want to show they are armed.”

Beyond that, the details are sketchy. Nizar Nayouf, a longtime Syria dissident and blogger who wrote about the killings, says the massacre took place in the final week of March 2011.

A source who was in Daraa at the time, places the attack before the second week of April.

Rami Abdul Rahman, an anti-government activist who heads up the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights (SOHR), the most quoted Western media source on Syrian casualties, tells me: “It was on the first of April and about 18 or 19 security forces – or “mukhabarat” – were killed.”

Syria’s Deputy Foreign Minister Dr. Faisal Mekdad is a rare government official familiar with the incident. Mekdad studied in Daraa, is from a town 35 kilometers to the east called Ghasson, and made several official visits to Daraa during the early days of the crisis. The version he tells me is similar, down to the details of where the ambush took place – and how. Mekdad, however, believes that around 24 Syrian army soldiers were shot that day.

Why would the Syrian government hide this information, when it would bolster their narrative of events – namely that “armed groups” were targeting authorities from the start, and that the uprising was not all “peaceful”?

In Mekdad’s view, “this incident was hidden by the government and by the security for reasons I can interpret as an attempt not to antagonize or not to raise emotions and to calm things down – not to encourage any attempt to inflame emotions which may lead to escalation of the situation – which at that time was not the policy.”

A picture taken by a mobile phone shows Syrian anti-government protesters taking part in a demonstration in Banias in northeastern Syria on April 22, 2011 as calls were launched for nationwide "Good Friday" rallies, a day after President Bashar al-Assad scrapped decades of draconian emergency rule. (AFP Photo)

April 2011: The killing of soldiers

What we do know for certain is that on April 25, 2011, nineteen Syrian soldiers were gunned down in Daraa by unknown assailants. The names, ages, dates of birth and death, place of birth and death and marital/parental status of these 19 soldiers are documented in a list of military casualties obtained from Syria’s Defense Ministry.

The list was corroborated by another document – given to me by a non-government acquaintance involved in peace efforts – that details 2011 security casualties. All 19 names were verified by this second list.

Were these the soldiers of the “Daraa massacre?” April 25 is later than the dates suggested by multiple sources – and these 19 deaths were not exactly “hidden.”

But even more startling than actually finding the 19 Daraa soldiers on a list, was the discovery that in April 2011, eighty-eight soldiers were killed by unknown shooters in different areas across Syria.

Keep in mind that the Syrian army was mostly not in the field that early on in the conflict. Other security forces like police and intelligence groups were on the front lines then – and they are not included in this death toll.

The first Syrian soldiers to be killed in the conflict, Sa’er Yahya Merhej and Habeel Anis Dayoub, were killed on March 23 in Daraa.

Two days after those first military casualties, Ala’a Nafez Salman was gunned down in Latakia.

On April 9, Ayham Mohammad Ghazali was shot dead in Douma, south of Damascus. The first soldier killing in Homs Province – in Teldo – was on April 10 when Eissa Shaaban Fayyad was shot.

April 10 was also the day when we learned of the first massacre of Syrian soldiers – in Banyas, Tartous – when nine troops were ambushed and gunned down on a passing bus. The BBC, Al Jazeera and the Guardian, all initially quoted witnesses claiming the dead soldiers were “defectors” shot by the Syrian army for refusing to fire on civilians.

A protester in the flahspoint central Syrian city of Homs throws a tear gas bomb back towards security forces, on December 27, 2011. (AFP photo)

That narrative was debunked later, but the story that soldiers were being killed by their own commanders stuck hard throughout 2011 – and gave the media an excuse to ignore stories that security forces were being targeted by armed groups.

The SOHR’s Rami Abdul Rahman says of the “defector” storyline: “This game of saying the army is killing defectors for leaving – I never accepted this because it is propaganda.” It is likely that this narrative was used early on by opposition activists to encourage divisions and defections among the armed forces. If military commanders were shooting their own men, you can be certain the Syrian army would not have remained intact and united three years on.

After the Banyas slayings, soldier deaths in April continued to pop up in different parts of the country – Moadamiyah, Idlib, Harasta, al-Masmiyah (near Suweida), Talkalakh and the suburbs of Damascus.

But on April 23, seven soldiers were slaughtered in Nawa, a town near Daraa. Those killings did not make the headlines like the one in Banyas. Notably, the incident took place right after the Syrian government tried to defuse tensions by abolishing the state security courts, lifting the state of emergency, granting general amnesties and recognizing the right to peaceful protest.

Two days later, on April 25 – Easter Monday – Syrian troops finally moved into Daraa. In what became the scene of the second mass slaying of soldiers since the weekend, 19 soldiers were shot dead that day.

This information also never made it to the headlines.

Instead, all we ever heard was about the mass killing of civilians by security forces: “The dictator slaughtering his own people.” But three years into the Syrian crisis, can we say that things may have taken a different turn if we had access to more information? Or if media had simply provided equal air-time to the different, contesting testimonies that were available to us?

Facts versus fiction

A report by Human Rights Watch (HRW) relies entirely on 50 unnamed activists, witnesses and “defected soldiers” to set the scene for what was taking place in Daraa around that time.

HRW witnesses provided accounts of “security forces using lethal force against protesters during demonstrations” and “funeral processions.” In some cases, says HRW, “security forces first used teargas or fired in the air, but when the protesters refused to disperse, they fired live ammunition from automatic weapons into the crowds…From the end of March witnesses consistently reported the presence of snipers on government buildings near the protests who targeted and killed many of the protesters.”

The HRW report also states: “Syrian authorities repeatedly claimed that the violence in Daraa was perpetrated by armed terrorist gangs, incited and sponsored from abroad.”

Today we know that this statement is fairly representative of a large segment of Islamist militants inside Syria, but was it true in Daraa in early 2011 as well?

There are some things we know as fact. For instance, we have visual evidence of armed men crossing the Lebanese border into Syria during April and May 2011, according to video footage and testimony from former Al Jazeera reporter Ali Hashem, whose video was censored by his network.

Lebanese army troops deploy in Wadi Khaled on Lebanon's northern border with Syria on May 20, 2011. (AFP Photo / Joseph Eid)

There are other things we are still only now discovering. For instance, the HRW report also claims that Syrian security forces in Daraa “desecrated (mosques) by scrawling graffiti on the walls” such as“Your god is Bashar, there is no god but Bashar” – in reference to Syrian President Bashar al-Assad.

Just recently a Tunisian jihadist who goes by the name Abu Qusay, told Tunisian television that his “task” in Syria was to destroy and desecrate mosques with Sunni names (Abu Bakr mosque, Othman mosque, etc) in false-flag sectarian attacks to encourage defection by Syrian soldiers, the majority of whom are Sunni. One of the things he did was scrawling pro-government and blasphemous slogans on mosque walls like “Only God, Syria and Bashar.” It was a “tactic” he says, to get the soldiers to “come on our side” so that the army “can become weak.”

Had the Syrian government been overthrown quickly – as in Tunisia and Egypt – perhaps we would not have learned about these acts of duplicity. But three years into this conflict, it is time to establish facts versus fiction.

A member of the large Hariri family in Daraa, who was there in March and April 2011, says people are confused and that many “loyalties have changed two or three times from March 2011 till now. They were originally all with the government. Then suddenly changed against the government – but now I think maybe 50% or more came back to the Syrian regime.”

The province was largely pro-government before things kicked off. According to the UAE paper The National,“Daraa had long had a reputation as being solidly pro-Assad, with many regime figures recruited from the area.”

But as Hariri explains it, “there were two opinions” in Daraa. “One was that the regime is shooting more people to stop them and warn them to finish their protests and stop gathering. The other opinion was that hidden militias want this to continue, because if there are no funerals, there is no reason for people to gather.”

“At the beginning 99.9 percent of them were saying all shooting is by the government. But slowly, slowly this idea began to change in their mind – there are some hidden parties, but they don’t know what,” says Hariri, whose parents remain in Daraa.

HRW admits “that protestors had killed members of security forces” but caveats it by saying they “only used violence against the security forces and destroyed government property in response to killings by the security forces or…to secure the release of wounded demonstrators captured by the security forces and believed to be at risk of further harm.”

We know that this is not true – the April 10 shootings of the nine soldiers on a bus in Banyas was an unprovoked ambush. So, for instance, was the killing of General Abdo Khodr al-Tallawi, killed alongside his two sons and a nephew in Homs on April 17. That same day in the pro-government al-Zahra neighborhood in Homs, off-duty Syrian army commander Iyad Kamel Harfoush was gunned down when he went outside his home to investigate gunshots. Two days later, Hama-born off-duty Colonel Mohammad Abdo Khadour was killed in his car. And all of this only in the first month of unrest.

In 2012, HRW’s Syria researcher Ole Solvag told me that he had documented violence “against captured soldiers and civilians” and that “there were sometimes weapons in the crowds and some demonstrators opened fire against government forces.”

But was it because the protestors were genuinely aggrieved with violence directed at them by security forces? Or were they “armed gangs” as the Syrian government claims? Or – were there provocateurs shooting at one or both sides?

Provocateurs in “Revolutions”

Syrian-based Father Frans van der Lugt was the Dutch priest murdered by a gunman in Homs just a few weeks ago. His involvement in reconciliation and peace activities never stopped him from lobbing criticisms at both sides in this conflict. But in the first year of the crisis, he penned some remarkable observations about the violence – this one in January 2012:

“From the start the protest movements were not purely peaceful. From the start I saw armed demonstrators marching along in the protests, who began to shoot at the police first. Very often the violence of the security forces has been a reaction to the brutal violence of the armed rebels.”

In September 2011 he wrote: “From the start there has been the problem of the armed groups, which are also part of the opposition…The opposition of the street is much stronger than any other opposition. And this opposition is armed and frequently employs brutality and violence, only in order then to blame the government.”

Certainly, by June 5, there was no longer any ability for opposition groups to pretend otherwise. In a coordinated attack in Jisr Shughur in Idlib, armed groups killed 149 members of the security forces, according to the SOHR.

But in March and April, when violence and casualties were still new to the country, the question remains: Why would the Syrian government – against all logic – kill vulnerable civilian populations in “hot” areas, while simultaneously taking reform steps to quell tensions?

Who would gain from killing “women and children” in those circumstances? Not the government, surely?


Discussion about the role of provocateurs in stirring up conflict has made some headlines since Estonian Foreign Minister Urmas Paet’sleaked phone conversation  with the EU’s Catherine Ashton disclosed suspicions that pro-west snipers had killed both Ukranian security forces and civilians during the Euromaidan protests.

Says Paet: “All the evidence shows that people who were killed by snipers from both sides, among policemen and people from the streets, that they were the same snipers killing people from both sides…and it’s really disturbing that now the new (pro-western) coalition, they don’t want to investigate what exactly happened.”

A recent German TV investigation the sniper shootings confirms much about these allegations, and has opened the door to contesting versions of events in Ukraine that did not exist for most of the Syrian conflict – at least not in the media or in international forums.

Instead of writing these things off as “conspiracy theories,” the role of provocateurs against targeted governments suddenly appears to have emerged in the mainstream discourse. Whether it is the US’s leaked plan to create aCuban twitter to stir unrest in the island nation – or – the emergence of “instructional” leaflets in protests from Egypt to Syria to Libya to Ukraine, the convergence of just one-too-many “lookalike” mass protest movements that turn violent has people asking questions and digging deeper today.

Since early 2011 alone, we have heard allegations of “unknown” snipers targeting crowds and security forces in Tunisia, Egypt, Libya, Syria and Ukraine. What could be more effective at turning populations against authority than the unprovoked killing of unarmed innocents? By the same token, what could better ensure a reaction from the security forces of any nation than the gunning down of one or more of their own?

By early 2012, the UN claimed there were over 5,000 casualties in Syria – without specifying whether these were civilians, rebel fighters or government security forces. According to government lists presented to and published by the UN’s Independent International Commission of Inquiry on Syria, in the first year of conflict, the death toll for Syrian police forces was 478, and 2,091 for military and security force casualties.

Those numbers suggest a remarkable parity in deaths between both sides in the conflict, right from the start. It also suggests that at least part of the Syrian “opposition” was from the earliest days, armed, organized, and targeting security forces as a matter of strategy – in all likelihood, to elicit a response that would ensure continued escalation.

Today, although Syrian military sources strongly refute these numbers, the SOHR claims there are more than 60,000 casualties from the country’s security forces and pro-government militias. These are men who come from all parts of the nation, from all religions and denominations and from all communities. Their deaths have left no family untouched and explain a great deal about the Syrian government’s actions and responses throughout this crisis.

Sharmine Narwani for RT . Follow @snarwani on Twitter

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The views expressed in this article are the sole responsibility of the author and do not necessarily reflect those of the Blog!

Sharmine Narwani. “65 Armenians have been killed since the Syrian crisis began”

Sharmine Narwani
Photo: From personal archive

Sharmine Narwani

Sharmine Narwani




Sharmine Narwani is a political commentator and analyst of Mideast geopolitics, and has travelled to and written extensively about Syria since the start of the conflict three years ago. Her commentary on the Middle East has been published in Al Akhbar English, The New York Times, The Guardian, USA Today, Al Jazeera, Huffington Post and others.

 -Information about extremists who started to attack and kill Christians in Syria, was again spread  in web in January. What information do you have about these attacks?

-I don’t have any further information on the alleged execution of the two Syrian-Armenian men from Aleppo. Sadly, at this point in the conflict in Syria, this kind of news is no longer surprising. It takes more than a mere ‘beheading’ or a chopped off body part to make the headlines today.

We are, however, increasingly hearing about forced conversions, particularly in the past six months as Islamist militants have taken control of the armed rebellion.  I think it was last September – when Al Qaeda-linked groups seized the ancient Christian town of Maaloula – that the media first shone a spotlight on forced conversions. Local civilians later spoke of rebels using terms like “Crusader” to underline the sectarian nature of the attack – only serving to frighten Christian communities across Syria further.

The news earlier this month of the forced conversion of two Armenian families by the radical Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (ISIL) was followed by reports of the executions of Wanis and Minas Livonian, who had allegedly accepted conversions. I’m not sure we can ever know the truth of that story. But this information comes on the heels of 13 nuns being kidnapped from Maaloula in December, so I think the tendency is to accept the worst.

– Having in mind the attacks that you have mentioned, and lots of other simliar examples, can this already be considered as  the start of a “religious war” in the whole Middle East?

-I don’t think it is right to extrapolate from the actions of a few thousand extremists and plunge straight into a war-of-civilizations discourse. There is a real danger of exacerbating conflict by ‘framing’ the narrative in sectarian terms.

Let’s be honest here. Is there really a Christian versus Muslim conflict in the Mideast? Is there really a Sunni versus Shia conflict in the region? I don’t think so and neither do the majority of Arabs polled.

The conflict is not between sectsit is between “sectarians” and “non-sectarians.” There are Christians and Muslims and Shia and Sunni on both sides of that divide. And fortunately, those who are “sectarian” represent a miniscule population – they just happen to be louder, more zealous and more determined to sow discord among communities.

What is disturbing today is the staggering amount of financial assistance flowing to sectarian groups and individuals, both in and out of the Middle East. Part of this comes from the «politics of polarization» – what you might find in an Iranophobic Saudi Arabia or a Shia-hating Pakistani donor. But the real shocker is how far countries like the United States, Great Britain and France have been willing to go to isolate, marginalize, destabilize and destroy adversaries (Syria, Iran, Hezbollah) – even if it has meant investing heavily in sectarianism to make those gains. These three western powers – so influential in global media – have clung to divisive and sectarian narratives to describe events in the region, even going so far as to downplay violence against Christians to serve broader political agendas.

There is no ‘religious war’ in the Middle East. There is no popular support for any such thing. On the contrary, the horror of sectarian violence like beheadings and castrations has made a lot of Arabs disconnect from “sect” and adopt a more unifying “national” identity. Hence the rise in support for national armies in states like Egypt, Syria and Lebanon.

-Are the fears, that the Christian population becomes the main and only target of the extremist groups, true?

-No. I don’t think the Christian population has been singled out in this conflict. As rebels radicalized, all dissenters have been hit hard, regardless of sect, religion or anything else – this includes Sunni populations as well. Extremist groups are intolerant by nature and demand conformity, so anyone outside their framework is going to be a target.

I read somewhere that 65 Armenians have been killed since the crisis began – I don’t know what the number is for Christians in total. But out of a figure of more than 100,000 dead, that number is negligible.

– Today we are witnesses of Islamist extremists fighting against each other in Syria. What caused this rivalry between rebel groups who were focused only on fighting against the Assad regime in past?

-The so-called Syrian “Revolution” has been a turf war for power and control from the start. Disparate interests within, and competing interests from foreign backers, have ensured that there will never be a unified “opposition” in Syria. It was easy enough to pretend they were one fighting force in the early days, but as the various militias gained territory and assets, the competition for dominance accelerated.

The recent confrontations that have reportedly killed more than 2,000 rebels are mainly between the ISIL and other rebel factions that have organized themselves into new coalitions for this fight. At the heart of these clashes is a turf war, but the ISIL, which is viewed as a non-Syrian group, has alienated many rebel militias by attacking other fighters and refusing to cooperate on many levels.

Ideologically, there isn’t an awful lot of difference between the various Salafist militant groups, and the ones being re-packaged as “moderates” these days are simply the ones smart enough to publically defer all talk of “Islamic Empire” until they have assumed power.

I anticipate continued rebel infighting because, as we enter a new phase in the Syrian conflict where compromises, negotiations and military confrontation will produce winners and losers, the stakes increase and it will be “each militia for itself.”

– Do you think that western powers who were demanding the resignation of Assad before, now have a huge problem dealing with this new big Extremist threat?

-Absolutely. The West calculated that Assad would fall shortly after protests broke out in 2011. At various intervals they have tried to escalate the conflict, believing wrongly that one more “big push” would do the job. Instead, they helped push Syria into a situation of dangerous instability and chaos – producing the kind of environment in which Al Qaeda and like-minded radical groups thrive.

Washington has certainly recognized its error, and has taken recent bold steps to shift course. It is the only reason why the US bypassed its traditional allies Saudi Arabia and Israel and struck a nuclear deal with Iran in Geneva. The West now needs help from inside the Middle East to thwart extremism. And they know that Iran is one of the only countries that can do this – the Islamic Republic is a major target of Saudi-backed Salafist extremism and is therefore existentially motivated to thwart it. So now Iran, Hezbollah, Iraq and Syria are going to be at the forefront of a real War on Terror, fought and led from inside the region. Neighboring states like Turkey and Jordan will eventually participate, and Russia, China, India and other key states will lend significant support.

-If summarizing recent developments, what is the future of Christians still living in Syria?  

-A lot of Christians have fled Syria at this point. Those who could afford it left early, mainly to keep their spouses and children out of harm’s way. The decision to leave has weighed heavily on all the Christians I have spoken with: they are torn between love for their country and concern for their families. Most resolve to return when the worst is over.

Christians and Armenians also feel a profound sense of responsibility to ensure the continuity, after thousands of years, of their presence in Syria – and to maintain their heritage sites and treasures. Extremists have destroyed so many churches, monasteries and places of worship that this aspect, at least, seems bleak for now.

Resolve to remain in Syria is put to the test often. An acquaintance from Homs tells me of the massive exodus of more than 50,000 Christians from the city since late 2011. Most of the Homs Christians didn’t leave Syria – they relocated first to Wadi al Nasarah  (also known as Valley of the Christians)  (closer to the Lebanese border) and set up checkpoints and protection patrols in their neighborhoods.

Just opposite this area you have the Krak de Chevaliers, the famous Crusader fortress which is now entirely occupied by armed Islamist militias – this is a strategic point between Lebanon and Syria, well-travelled by fighters and weapons. But on August 14, eleven Christians were brutally murdered by Islamist militias from the nearby town of Amar al Hosn, prompting another wave of Christians to leave or send their children out of Syria.

It is a hard choice Christians face today. The Levant is all the richer for its diversity, and Christians play a huge part in that. This may be a fragile community, but there is a real determination to preserve heritage and history, both. Right now the future may not look too rosy, but I don’t see Syria without its Christian community.

The international community is now taking Islamist extremism in Lebanon, Syria and Iraq very seriously, and I anticipate some significant military and political efforts to turn the tide in Syria. Christians remaining in the country will participate in these efforts, particularly as Salafist attacks become more sectarian and brutal. It will be important, during this time, to coalition-build with other communities and enhance defensive security measures Christians can’t afford not to be proactive any longer. I also think this finally means the plight of Christians and other Syrian minorities will be highlighted in the global media with more regularity – and less bias – than in the past.

Narine Daneghyan talked to Sharmine Narwani.

There is no “middle” in the Middle East today

sharmine narwani

Beirut, Lebanon– Posted by:  Posted date: 17 January 2014
we-magazine: The conflict between Sunnis and Shiites seems to deepen in Lebanon. Who is fueling this divide and why?

Narwani: I am wary anytime I hear about Sunni-Shia conflicts in the Mideast. While there are historic tensions between these two groups, the region is aflood with Sunni-Shia marriages, particularly in those countries – Lebanon, Bahrain, Syria, Iraq – said to be suffering most from Sunni-Shia strife.

I always prefer to say that the real conflict is between “sectarians” and “non-sectarians” – this is a more accurate description because there are Sunni and Shia on both sides of that divide. Those in the “sectarian” grouping are the minority opinion in their own communities, but they are loud and aggressive, so we think there are many of them.
It is very easy to get drawn into the narrative of constant Shia-Sunni discord – it blares from the headlines in all our papers. But at this point in a rapidly destabilizing Middle East, it befits us to dig deeper.
Saudi Arabia is ground-zero for the divisive Sunni-vs-Shia narrative. While the Saudis are extremely conservative Wahhabis (Sunni), this discourse is mainly a convenient political tool to keep Iranian ascendency at bay.  After the 1979 Islamic Revolution in Iran, the Saudis were frantic that a grassroots Islamic revolt that successfully overthrew a key US dictator in the region might inspire the Muslim (mostly Sunni) masses, and sought to drive a wedge between Iranians and Arabs, Shia and Sunni.
These negative narratives have been more than 30 years in the making, and they are a key divide-and-rule strategy in nations whose governments or populations are allied with Iran.
Lebanon has been one such playground for this Saudi mischief. Riyadh has thrown money and clout at undermining staunch Iranian ally and Lebanese resistance group Hezbollah for years, and plays a central role in local politics here. You can be assured that there is Saudi or Gulf money behind every vocal Salafist militant calling for reprisals against Hezbollah, Iran or Syria in Lebanon today.
we-magazine: A few days ago a leading figure of Al Qaeda was captured and detained by Lebanese security forces. Then he died in custody. He announced that the “Christians” were his target – in Syria and in Lebanon. Are we slowly entering into another war in Lebanon?

Narwani: I’m assuming you are speaking of Saudi national Majed al-Majed, leader of the (allegedly) Al Qaeda-linked Abdullah Azzam Brigades that claimed responsibility for the bombing of the Iranian Embassy in Beirut a few months ago – the first suicide-bombing operation that Lebanon has seen for decades, incidentally.
Majed died on January 4 while in custody of the Lebanese Army, and there has been much speculation about his cause of death. The Iranians are outraged and suspect foul play, because had Majed lived, he could have provided some clear-cut answers to which individuals and states are funding terror activity in Lebanon today. The Saudis demanded Majed’s extradition from the time he was apprehended, which cast suspicion their way. The Saudis had very recently, after all, pledged $3 billion to the Lebanese Army.
All these events and developments contribute to the growing apprehension over the security situation in Lebanon – people here have been warning of Syrian “spillover” and being dragged into war for more than two years now.
But let me say this: whatever the political motivations of various parties and their foreign mentors, whatever the level of rage and desire for revenge, there has so far been some kind of universal understanding that Lebanon shall not cross over into a situation of open and widespread warfare.
For starters, the UN Security Council permanent members – including the US, UK and France who have been so intimately involved in fueling the Syrian conflict – are dead-set against any real conflagration in Lebanon. Their appetite for conflict on more than one of Israel’s borders is nil. For other players like the Russians, Iranians and Chinese, a war in Lebanon would muddy the Syrian waters, and they want attention focused on resolving the Syrian conflict right now and pre-empting further destabilization from the Levant to the Persian Gulf.
The two states that will remain opportunistic about conflict in Lebanon are Saudi Arabia and Israel – the Saudis because they view events in Syria as existential, and seem prepared to “set the region on fire” to attain their goals; the Israelis because they will welcome any opportunity to weaken their greatest military adversary, Hezbollah.
we-magazine: Outside Syria Hezbollah and Hamas are allies; inside Syria they fight against each other. Why?

Narwani: Look, at the heart of politics lies opportunism, and I’m not sure that is a bad thing. Decision makers need to be able to shift positions and alliances as circumstances change around them.
The Resistance Axis (Iran, Syria, Hezbollah, and once Hamas too) is a very unusual grouping. It is the only one in the region that consists of Shia and Sunni, Iranian and Arab, Islamist and Secularist.
At the heart of this Axis is a common political worldview – which is why foreign efforts to divide this group have largely failed. Anti-imperialism, a desire for regional self-determination, anti-Zionism – these are the threads that bind.
Hamas, an offshoot of the Muslim Brotherhood (MB), was torn when the Arab uprisings helped install mostly MB-related governments backed by Qatar and Turkey, two Islamist governments that took a “Sunni” view of the region, and sought to challenge Iran and its allies in the process. In a sense, Hamas was being forced to decide between their Sunni and Islamist identities and their “resistance” one.
The choice has created some serious splits within the group, so it is a battle that continues for Hamas. They have dealt with it by acknowledging both priorities – I think, to their detriment, because in this Mideast climate, there simply isn’t any “middle.”
I give some “maturity credit” to the Resistance Axis though – Hamas operatives have worked against Hezbollah in the Syrian military theater and yet, back in Lebanon, they share a common enemy in Israel. Both groups have taken pains to keep their differences from spilling into the public sphere, so there is some determined level of commitment to the relationship. The Resistance Axis has some key allies within Hamas’ military wing in Gaza – this is an asset that they will continue to support come hell or high water.
we-magazine: Where does the Lebanese Army stand?

Narwani: The Lebanese Armed Forces (LAF) is a pretty weak institution, in that it cannot act without consensus between competing political parties, which rarely happens in Lebanon. Furthermore, it has become a pawn in the larger geopolitical game, and cannot receive or purchase the weapons it actually needs to defend the country – mainly from Israel, which is Lebanon’s stated primary enemy.
For instance, Israel conducts illegal overflights over Lebanese territory every single day in violation of international law, but nobody will sell the LAF the anti-aircraft missiles that could put a halt to this practice. If Iran or China offers these weapons, all hell breaks loose in the Lebanese political arena – the LAF is voiceless in these debates, and so it has fallen to Hezbollah to protect Lebanon from Israeli aggression.
What’s interesting about this question is that in 2013 as political violence and sectarian rhetoric took hold in Lebanon, many Lebanese – fed up with their impotent politicians – were saying they wish the Lebanese Army would initiate a coup and take over the state.
It is worth mentioning that during this time in the wider region – from Egypt to Syria – we were seeing a rise in the fortunes of “national armies” and populations entrusting them to secure their states against the rising tide of Islamist militants and jihadists. Lebanon was no different in that regard.
The Saudi pledge of $3 billion dollars is the largest infusion of capital in LAF history, I gather. But it is an embarrassingly transparent attempt to buy-off the Lebanese Army and scuttle cooperation between Hezbollah and the LAF in dealing with (often) Saudi-backed Salafist militancy inside Lebanon. Even more cringe-worthy is the fact that all LAF weapons and ammunition purchases are required to be from France, which is in effect another Saudi pay-off for France’s efforts to sabotage the P5+1-Iran nuclear deal and continued French political support for the Syrian rebellion.
we-magazine: Who is funding the various (militant) groups in Lebanon and what are the goals behind the funding?

Narwani: This is a very difficult question to answer, because secrecy is the essential nature of these groups. They do not wire funds to each other from banks, nor do they make traceable mobile calls to deliver instructions on the next terror bombing.
Donors change according to the political climate as well. Some are interested in challenging the state or one of its neighbors, others may have sectarian interests or even function as criminal mafias. Today though, weapons and cash are being funneled to these groups to benefit a geopolitical fight against Iran, Syria and Hezbollah. The battle is cast in sectarian terms, which has lit the Takfiri fires from the Levant to the Persian Gulf. Volunteer drives in several Gulf states have funded jihadists from dozens of countries entering fights in Syria and even Iraq.
Lebanon has often been viewed as a resting place for many of these groups, but has now become an active battleground to (allegedly) halt Hezbollah’s assistance to the Syrian army and to shift the Levant’s balance of power back in favor of Saudi interests.
These groups used to be quite ideological, but have become more opportunistic now – and will bury the hatchet with Gulf monarchies for the moment to focus on common sectarian targets.
In Lebanon, the main suspect behind the funding of these groups today is Saudi Arabia, which makes a lot of sense given Riyadh’s existential outlook in regard to Syria and Iran. Those dots began to be connected when the Saudi establishment installed Prince Bandar bin Sultan as intelligence chief – Bandar is known for dirty tricks and his command of jihadist/salafist networks in many regions.
we-magazine: What are the chances and ways for the Lebanese NOT to get drawn into a war?

Narwani: As mentioned earlier, I believe it is still in the interest of all major Lebanese political parties, their foreign mentors, and global powers to maintain stability in Lebanon. This has become much more urgent since militants began merging their interests (Syria and Iraq) across borders and threatening instability in a long arc across the region.
Again, there are a few hold-outs like Saudi Arabia and Israel, but neither state currently seems to be willing to back a full-on escalation in Lebanon, mostly because the consequences are highly unpredictable right now.
Providing there is no game-changing event, maintenance of the status quo in Lebanon is desirable for all parties. Lebanon continues to be viewed as a “political lever” for many parties – this is the place where they send warning signals and threats to each other. A bombing here, gunfire there…that’s how domestic and foreign players issue missives to each other these days. They never go too far though – at least not yet.
Lebanon’s best bet is to try to maintain a certain neutrality even while its various parties assist in the Syrian conflict and elsewhere. I don’t think the formation of a new government will help a whit – one big event in a neighboring state and little Lebanon’s government will collapse again.
The main thing Lebanon needs to do while it is treading water is to halt the proliferation of militant groups inside the country and to stop foreign fighters from crossing its borders. This isn’t a matter of taking sides – it is the fundamental right of all nation-states to preserve their sovereignty and territorial integrity.
A politically-independent and well-supplied Lebanese Army is essential for this task, but cannot seem to do it right now without assistance from Hezbollah, which tries to take a low-key role in these operations so as not to provoke further sectarianism. Hezbollah’s involvement, in turn, infuriates the other “camp” – but then they too should step up and police their neighborhoods and border towns from foreign infiltration and the influx of heavy weapons and small arms.
If Lebanon is impotent today within the context of larger regional battles, the least it can do is to preserve its territorial integrity in the meantime. Every terrorist attack here seems to empower the LAF a little bit more – popular outrage is demanding this. I’m not sure how then the LAF can take $3 billion in assistance from Saudi Arabia – the very country that is backing Salafist militants who are attacking Lebanese soldiers.
Note: we-magazine is a new European online publication.

Iran is on the rise in 2014, but dangers abound

Special to The BRICS Post 
January 7, 2014, 8:39 pm

What a difference a year can make in the Middle East.

Just 12 months ago, Iran was facing some daunting prospects: Painful western economic and financial sanctions, the potential downfall of its key Arab Syrian ally, and a resurgence in anti-Shia and anti-Iran rhetoric spurred on by Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) neighbours seeking to undermine Iranian influence in the region.

But as 2014 kicks off, the tables have turned rather dramatically:

A historic compromise in Geneva between the P5+1 and the Islamic Republic recognised Iran’s nuclear aspirations, rolled back some sanctions and replenished the country’s coffers.

International consensus is starting to gather behind Iran’s Syrian ally and against its Saudi Arabian adversary, tipping the regional balance of power in Tehran’s favour.

Moreover, the Islamic Republic is now widely seen as holding key levers in the resolution of conflicts from Lebanon to Iraq, Syria, Afghanistan, Yemen and beyond, placing Iran at the table with global powers who need its regional clout quite suddenly.

Diminished US influence in, and commitment to, the Middle East has peeled the constraints off Iran, which appears keen to assume a more prominent regional role.

Iran has gained critical support from UN Security Council permanent members Russia and China, also eager to end the dismal era of American hegemony in the Mideast.

Both states are committed to pushing a new global political and economic agenda based on multilateralism, and with Iran and Iraq set to becoming the Persian Gulf’s new energy hub, Moscow – and especially Beijing – are keen to protect those interests.

While 2014 is already looking much brighter for Iran, there are some significant dangers that will not make this an easy ride.

The Salafist Threat

For starters, Shia Iran – and its multi-sect regional allies – is a huge target for sectarian Salafist militants and Al Qaeda wannabes throughout the Levant and the Gulf.

Corridors of political violence have opened up from Lebanon to Iraq, threatening to destabilise the entire region unless there is a dedicated global effort to roll back Sunni extremism.

Iran is taking the regional lead in tackling this problem, placing the country in direct confrontation with longtime foe, Saudi Arabia. This battle is viewed as an existential one for the now boldly sectarian Riyadh, which is committing serious money and clout to thwart Iran’s ascendency, overthrow Syria’s government, destabilise Iraq and destroy Lebanese resistance group and close Iranian ally, Hezbollah.

Oddly enough, Iran and its allies will gain support in this fight from their adversaries in the West. The Salafist threat has grown too strong, its destabilising potential too obvious, and the threat of jihadism spreading westward too likely – and so there is a noticeable western narrative building against Saudi Arabia and its sponsorship of radicalism and militancy.

While Iran and its allies will lead the battle from within the region, with some key intelligence and support coming from new western partners, these are uneasy alliances with divergent interests…it will not be a smooth ride.

The Iranians are seasoned pros in the art of diplomacy, however, and have always chosen the soft power route over a military alternative, so we can count on some fights being won at the negotiating table instead of the battlefield.


Zarif sought to calm Arab fears that a nuclear deal would come at their espense [Getty Images]

Just recently, when the Saudis pushed their GCC partners to form a union to strengthen their hand in the Persian Gulf, it was Iran’s proactive diplomacy that threw a wrench in the works. Oman, which had quietly been courted by Iranians, refused to participate, and the UAE expressed disinterest too. 

Call it a divide-and-rule strategy of sorts, if you will. But as the Iranian negotiating team headed to Geneva in November to iron out details of a nuclear deal, Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif penned an unusual op-ed in leading Saudi paper Asharq al-Awsat entitled “Our Neighbors Are Our Priority”.

This remarkable commentary sought to assuage the concern of Arab neighbors that an impending nuclear deal would be “pursued at their expense” – and urged Gulf nations against adopting a “zero sum mentality” over this historic rapprochement.Shuttle diplomacy involving several Persian Gulf states ensued, and was undoubtedly pivotal in alleviating concerns about Iranian “intentions” in the region.

Most importantly, during these visits, Tehran managed to dissuade several GCC states from following the confrontational Saudi lead.

Nuclear Deal Has Pitfalls

Once the euphoria over the historic Geneva nuclear deal subsided, the myriad obstructions that could derail a final agreement became fairly obvious.

First, there are potential spoilers everywhere: the US Congress, Israel, Saudi Arabia, Iranian skeptics, even France – vested interests in scuttling a deal abound. Second, any series of events in the Middle East could change the calculations that brought the various parties to the negotiating table. Third, there will be numerous points along the path to a final agreement when the interest of one party or another will shift because of domestic or foreign policy considerations. Fourth, mistrust between the parties is high and can hamper progress indefinitely over mechanisms of implementation.

The forecast is not all bleak, however, particularly not for Iran. The Islamic Republic has already essentially gained recognition of its right to enrich uranium at 3.5 per cent levels, which is what it has always sought. Inside Iran, it is no secret that building new nuclear facilities, jacking up the number of centrifuges, and upping enrichment levels to 20 per cent were all very helpful negotiating tools in reaching this outcome.

And that genie can’t be put back in its bottle.

Just as important for the Iranians is why this deal was done. A year ago, there was no real P3 interest in resolving the Iranian nuclear issue – just in slapping on more unilateral sanctions to affect “behavior change” in the Islamic Republic.

Over the past year, the Russians, Chinese and their BRICS partners have drawn red lines around further punitive Iran sanctions, thwarting US, UK and French (P3) attempts to up the ante.

But the reason the P3 showed up in Geneva, finally ready to “do a deal” with Iran, had little to do with nukes and centrifuges.  The nuclear agreement was struck because the West had lost control over its Mideast agenda – and Iran was increasingly looking like the only regional state that could offer up solutions.

Iran as a regional power


Under the Geneva nuclear deal, Iran will be allowed to enrich limited amounts of uranium [Getty Images]

Under the Geneva nuclear deal, Iran will be allowed to enrich limited amounts of uranium [Getty Images]

The Middle East is suddenly falling apart at the seams.

Foreign-backed regime-change operations in Syria and Libya have spawned a jihadist revival, with armed ideological fighters traversing borders with impunity and tearing at the territorial integrity and sovereignty of states.

The US cannot rely on its old allies in the region – Egypt is in turmoil; the Saudis, Qataris and Turks, with their various Islamist alliances, hidden agendas and support for militants are no longer trusted; Israel has become marginalised and cannot play in any Arab theater for fear of backlashes. Washington needed a new regional partner – even if a foe – that shared the mutual goal of rolling back extremism and re-establishing stability in the key Levant and Persian Gulf areas.

So, no – Geneva did not happen because of the incoming “moderate” Iranian president, though he undoubtedly helped make it an easier sell to western audiences. Geneva took place because of the Salafist/jihadist threat – and Iran’s unique position to help troubleshoot the problem.

There is always the danger – as the year progresses – that as the threat of militancy diminishes on the ground, the P3 will scuttle some Iranian gains to level the playing field once more.

It’s an old tactic to keep adversaries in check, and it is likely to be put back into play at various intervals.Will this nuclear deal reach its intended goals in the one year allocated to finalize a comprehensive agreement? Unlikely, at this point, I suspect. There are too many divergent interests between the P3 and Iran still.

Washington has little incentive to remove all sanctions and let Iran off the hook for launching an indigenous nuclear programme and pursuing independent policies. That would require expending vital domestic political capital at a time when foreign policy is of little importance to Americans more concerned with jobs, healthcare, economy.

But they may intermittently roll back further sanctions, which is all Iran’s current and potential trading partners need to start the process of bypassing unilateral sanctions altogether.

The sanctions regime will not hold once that dam is broken – even collectively, the US and EU do not have the same clout they once enjoyed to dictate terms in a fast-changing global economy where every penny counts.

The US has spent three decades building up the “mad mullah” and “dangerous Iranian nuclear weapons” narratives – it will be extremely difficult to reverse that storyline and remove all punitive sanctions against Iran in the one short year allotted in the Geneva deal. Signs that things are on track for a final agreement? Watch for clear and drastic narrative changes favoring the Islamic Republic.

It is more likely that the agreements struck during and after Geneva will simply continue to be extended indefinitely, with perhaps some minor revisions and additions that suit the various parties. Only a huge “game-changer” is going to get us to a final agreement.

The West will look to “contain” Iran’s influence in a different way than in the past, but today Iran also has plenty of tools to reciprocate in areas important to the P3 – in the Persian Gulf, Afghanistan, Iraq, Syria, Yemen, Bahrain and Lebanon – and it will employ these cards for gain anytime the West decides to make things difficult for Iran.

In this, the two sides are well-matched, with Iran having a slight advantage of the home court and some new support from rising powers.

Right now, tentative, positive steps continue to be made behind the scenes in areas where P3 and Iranian goals converge. The Geneva “deal” was only a Joint Plan of Action, and an actual agreement has not yet been put into play.

Both sides confirm that the bilateral and multilateral meetings now taking place are ironing out some key mechanisms and details, and all parties currently expect to finalise the implementation plan shortly.

Then the clock starts ticking.

This is a big year for Iran. In many ways, the Islamic Republic has already achieved several long-held goals: recognition of its position as a regional power and its policy independence, and recognition of its inalienable right to a peaceful nuclear programme.

Iran kicks off 2014 playing a much larger regional and international role, but does so facing the biggest threat to its national security since the Iran-Iraq war. One thing worth remembering this year: Iran plays the “long game” where others are impatient for quick results and rewards.

Thirty-odd years after being sidetracked in the world of international politics, the Islamic Republic has stepped back in, at the top of their game.

This is one country to bet on.

Sharmine Narwani (Political analyst and commentator)

Sharmine Narwani is a political analyst and commentator on Middle East geopolitics and a senior associate at St. Antony’s College, Oxford University. She has also co-produced a Venice Film Festival award-winning movie and run a technology company.

The Geopolitics of the Syrian War – Sharmine Narwani on GRTV

“Security Arc” forms amidst Mideast terror

Map of ‘Security Arc’ by S. Narwani, E. Adaime, A. Amacha

These developments come with a unique, post-imperialist twist, though. For the first time in decades, this direction will be led from inside the region, by those Mideast states, groups, sects and parties most threatened by the extremism.
Because nobody else is coming to “save” the Middle East today.
As Salafist militants swarm various borders – from the Levant to the Persian Gulf to North Africa and beyond – states are disintegrating, their territorial integrity and sovereignty under threat, their institutions and economies in shambles, and their armed forces impotent against the irregular warfare practiced by these invaders.
But from within this chaos, a group of countries on the frontline of the battle has decided to give shape to a solution.
Their answer is to fight the militancy directly, to weed it out of their areas and cut off its roots. Already, they are sharing intelligence, cooperating in the battlefield with their collective resources and working to secure support from the international community.
And so while states are weakening elsewhere in the region, a security alliance is emerging out of a stretch of countries from the Levant to the Persian Gulf: Lebanon, Syria, Iraq and Iran.
According to a number of informed sources in the Levant, interviewed over the course of several months, this “Security Arc” will seek to achieve several objectives: First, to maintain the territorial integrity and sovereignty of participating countries. Second, to establish rigorous military and security cooperation against immediate and future threats from extremists. Third, to forge a common political worldview that enhances the alliance and can lead to further collaboration in other arenas.
Jordan’s Sunni King Abdullah once dubbed these four nations the “Shia Crescent,” taking an unusually sectarian jab at the rise in influence of Shia governments and political parties in all four nations. But the security alliances now forming between the four states has little to do with common “sect.” Instead, Abdullah and his allies have a direct hand in the development of this grouping:
It was, after all, the region’s western-backed Arab monarchies that launched the “counter-revolution” to thwart popular Arab uprisings and re-direct them at their regional adversaries, via Syria. Qatar, Saudi Arabia, Bahrain, Jordan, Kuwait, the UAE and their Western allies threw money, weapons, training and resources at unseating Syrian President Bashar al-Assad – in a bid to weaken Iran, isolate Hezbollah and take care of that “Shia threat” once and for all.
But in their single-minded haste to cripple foes, Arab monarchies (supported by western allies) backed any co-religionist prepared to enter the fight and ignored the sectarian, extremist ideologies that these fighters embraced. They quiteillogically calculated that the militancy could be controlled once the mission was accomplished.
To quote Council on Foreign Relations Senior Fellow Ed Husain in August 2012: “The unspoken political calculation among (US) policymakers is to get rid of Assad first—weakening Iran’s position in the region—and then deal with al-Qaeda later.”
In the end, Assad didn’t fall, Iran didn’t waver, Hezbollah dug in, and the Russians and Chinese stepped into the fray. As the Syrian conflict developed into a regional geopolitical battle, heavy weapons, porous borders and increasingly sectarian rhetoric created a unique opportunity – from Lebanon to Iraq – for Salafist militants, including Al Qaeda, to gain influence and create a highly desirable corridor from the Levant to the Persian Gulf.
Former CIA Director Michael Hayden says: “The dominant story going on in Syria is a Sunni fundamentalist takeover of a significant part of the Middle East geography, the explosion of the Syrian state and of the Levant as we know it.”
Today, this ideological brand of political violence marked by summary executions, suicide bombings, beheadings and sectarianism threatens to unravel the entire area and turn it into a stomping ground for “emirs” and their fiefdoms governed by Shariah law. For some, this is a price worth paying – the Saudis continue unabashedly to fund and weaponize these conflicts. Other supporters, particularly in the West, have become fearful that the jihadi march will not stop at any border.
But few have taken any concrete steps to inhibit – financially or militarily – the proliferation of this extremism.
And so it is left for the targeted countries to tackle the problem. The same Western-Arab axis that sought to cripple “Shia” ascendency in the Middle East by fueling sectarianism and encouraging an armed “Sunni” reaction, has now created urgent common cause among Iranians, Syrians, Lebanese and Iraqis, based almost entirely on the “security” threat.
self-fulfilling prophecy, if you will.
Not a Uniform Union
In Lebanon, Syria and Iraq, there exists significant – mainly Sunni – populations that currently do not back a security union between the four states. Decades of sectarian propaganda from the GCC and west has made this demographic highly suspicious of the intentions of Shia Iran and its allies.
Although these populations are just as likely to be targeted by Salafist militants who have now killed Sunni moderates (along with Christians, Kurds and Shia) in Syria, Iraq and Lebanon, their reluctance to see political foes gain influence has often meant they have provided “cover” for militant co-religionists and allowed them to proliferate locally. The choice is painful for this demographic: let your adversaries rise or let extremists run amok.
But earlier this year, when Hezbollah took the decision to fight openly in Qusayr, Syria alongside the Syrian army, it became clear that the parties supporting this security alliance would no longer humor the dissenters.
This Security Arc would be forged with or without the approval of naysayers. And buy-in for the security imperative is coming from an unlikely source: the United States.
In the past few months, Washington has suddenly gone from backing a mostly Sunni ‘rebellion’ in Syria to reaching out to Iran. This about-turn stems from the realization that the US has dangerously overplayed its geopolitical game and allowed religious militancy to swell past the point of no return. Neither Washington nor its NATO partners can reverse this trend unaided. Both failed miserably in the decade-long, superficial “war on terror,” which, if anything, helped sow further seeds of extremism. The US now understands that it needs the assistance of vested regional partners and rising powers that face a more imminent threat from militants – Iran, Russia, China, India, Syria, Iraq, – not just to fight extremism, but to cut off its source…in Saudi Arabia, Pakistan, Yemen, Libya, Afghanistan and other places.
The Americans are in an extremely difficult position: to tackle the spread of extremists, they will have to support military and security solutions from old foes in the region – Iran, Syria, Hezbollah. For starters, this means that 30-plus years of “policy” will literally be flushed away and Washington risks alienating longtime regional allies. Moreover, a successful outcome, i.e. eliminating extremism, will almost certainly mean the ascendency of Iran and the downfall of US-ally Saudi Arabia – among the many other reverberations throughout the Mideast that this will entail.
Washington’s conflicting signals on the Middle East are a result of this tortured decision. Actions, however, speak louder than words: the US just struck a nuclear deal with Iran in Geneva in record time, having secretly opened direct channels of communications first. Last month, US President Barack Obama asked to meet his Iraqi counterpart Nuri al-Maliki – soon after, the US began sharing intelligence for the first time since American troops withdrew from Iraq. That first piece of intel, according to Az-Zaman, was on the movement of militants in the Anbar desert. Today, the US-Saudi relationship has soured to the point that even officials question any real convergence of interests; European ambassadors are starting to trek back to Damascus, their intelligence officials lining up to meet with their Syrian counterparts to share information on jihadists; the formidable Israelis have been shunted aside on some major Mideast decisions; NATO-member Turkey is working overtime to ease relations with Iran and Iraq. The list goes on.
These extraordinary developments would not have been feasible a mere six months ago when the blinkers were still on. The speed at which we have been ushered into a new “era of compromise” between adversaries is a testament to the extreme urgency of the jihadist/Salafist problem – and the lengths to which countries will go to address it.
Even if this means bulldozing through entrenched policy and turning it on its head.
As a senior Hezbollah source tells me: “The US is focused more on making arrangements directly with their opponents instead of relying on their allies.” There’s good reason for that. Many of Washington’s regional allies are a source of the instability and are having to be muzzled, coerced and cajoled into accepting the new realities.
Some of these allies are political parties within the Security Arc. They’re being brought into line more quickly now, partly because the threat of terrorism hovers in their own backyards. In Lebanon, for instance, a national army thus far restrained by pro-Saudi political interests looks set to finally tackle Salafist militants in key towns, cities and refugee camps where their numbers have swelled. That’s a tremendous breakthrough after almost three years of sitting on the fence, waiting for “spillover” from Syria and taking virtually no security precautions to prevent it.
Security Arc: Plan of Action
Things are moving rapidly on every front. The convergence of extremist sectarian militias into the 50,000-strong “Islamic Front” has created further common cause on the other side. The US and UK last week withdrew support for rebels, belatedly fearing radicalization of the ‘rebellion.’ And Iran launched diplomatic efforts in neighboring Gulf states to divide their ranks against toeing the old adversarial line, succeeding when Oman refused to support a Saudi initiative for a GCC union.
But to stamp out jihadism in Syria and beyond, three main objectives need to be achieved – and it will take a collective effort to get there:
First, is to weed out extremists from inside the areas where they are growing in number and influence and where political will exists: inside the Security Arc, from within Lebanon, Syria, Iraq and Iran. This is primarily a military solution – though some fighters may surrender/exit through negotiated political outreach, or when a mentoring state/individual calls it quits.
Second, is the establishment of a global sanctions regime to financially cripple jihadist/Salafist networks by targeting their sources of funding. This is already being done in small measure, but the West’s relationship with many of the violating states and individuals has prevented any genuine progress in the past. As Patrick Cockburn’s recent column in The Independent “Mass Murder in The Middle East is Funded By Our Friends The Saudis” points out: “Everyone knows where Al Qaeda gets its money, but while the violence is sectarian, the West does nothing.” The new US-Iranian rapprochement – fast-tracked to tackle terror – could change this, given the dramatic realignment of priorities and alliances created in its wake.
Third, is for neighboring states – and even those well beyond the region – to shut down their borders and enforce air-tight immigration security. On Syria’s borders we are already seeing both Turkey and Jordan taking some drastic measures, but the Iraqi border still remains porous and dangerous. Hence, Washington’s recent intel upgrade with Iraq.
Gravitating Toward The “Security” Priority
You can see the calculations changing in nations beyond the Security Arc already. Many keenly understand the vital role these four countries will have to play to stem militancy. All eyes right now are on Syria where the security situation is most precarious for the region – particularly in Egypt, Jordan and Turkey.
The latter three are the regional states most likely to support the Security Arc’s security objectives, albeit with reservations that accompany some fairly stark political differences.
Jordan, for example, has played “host” to an array of foreign special forces, troops, intelligence agencies and contractors, all focused on the task of bringing down the current Syrian government. But even its longtime financial dependency on Saudi Arabia is not worth the thousands of jihadis stationed on Jordanian territory, waiting to enter conflict zones. Arab media puts the number of Jordanian-origin jihadists inside the country at a horrifying 1,000. By contrast, the Europeans are terrified of even a handful of their own Islamist militants coming home.
According to a well-connected Lebanese source, around four months ago, Jordan, Syria and Iraq began quiet discussions (on separate bilateral tracks) about economic and security cooperation. The Jordanians initially balked at the security upgrade, but came around eventually. They’re not just worried about extremism, but about economic collapse too – either can set the other off. Worst of all would be complete irrelevance in a region undergoing rapid change. The Jordanians are not mavericks, and sandwiched as they are between Syria and Iraq, it is not hard to see their new direction.
Already, state security courts in Amman are imprisoning prominent Salafists and Jordanian fighters intent on crossing over into Syria. Jordan has shut down its border, enforced tight security around the Zaatari camp for Syrian refugees, and is likely to take further measures as relations with the Syrian government continue to improve.
The Turks have also taken measures to tighten up their borders – in practice. An internal battle still rages within its Islamist establishment where a hot-headed Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan cast his lot almost three years ago with the Syrian opposition. His intransigence on this issue has cost Turkey: armed militants have found refuge inside Turkey’s border with Syria, political violence has seeped into the country, Turkey’s popularity has plummeted in the Arab world across all sects, Erdogan’s own suppression of protest has marked him a hypocrite, and Kurdish “autonomy” in Syria raises ambitions for Kurds in neighboring Turkey.
The Turks will understand the security imperative, but the clincher will be the economic ones. Syria needs a lot of reconstruction and Iraq has oil wealth to spend once calm returns. Furthermore, a gas pipeline initiative stretching from Iran to the Mediterranean will altogether bypass Turkey – if it doesn’t play ball.
Egypt is likely to fall in line with the Security Arc for the simple reason that it now faces the same problems. Indebted as the interim military government may be to the petrodollars of Saudi Arabia and other Gulf state sponsors, Egypt will be entirely bankrupt if religious militancy takes hold, as it now threatens to do. Attacks against security forces in the Sinai surged during Egypt’s popular uprising in early 2011, and have gained momentum again since last summer when the military establishment returned to power. Today, non-Bedouin militants from outside the area are flocking to the Sinai, stocked with advanced weaponry from conflicts in Libya and Sudan. During the short reign of the Muslim Brotherhood which endorsed Syrian rebels, thousands of Egyptians flocked to the fight in Syria. It is likely that a state governed or dominated by a secular military establishment will follow the Syrian example and implement heavy security solutions to break the back of extremists.
Whatever one’s political inclinations, there is little doubt that inaction against Salafist militants at this juncture will lead to the disintegration of states throughout the Mideast.
The most dangerous hubs today are Syria, followed by Iraq, because of their political and geographical centrality in the region, and the likelihood of smaller or weaker neighbors being swept into the chaos.
The fight against extremism will therefore start inside the Security Arc, and will receive immediate support from the BRICS states and non-aligned nations. The West may choose to play key roles behind the scenes instead of unsettling their regional allies – at least for a while. But as confrontation escalates, countries will have to “take clear sides” in this pivotal battle, both in the Mideast and outside. Expect opportunism to play a hand – there may be a point at which a “stalemate” may be desirable for some. Few will dare to support the extremists, however, so also anticipate some serious narrative shifts on ‘good-guys’ and ‘bad-guys’ in the Mideast.
This, now, is the real War on Terror. But this time it will be led from inside the Middle East, gain universal support and change the regional political balance of power for generations to come.
Sharmine Narwani is a commentary writer and political analyst covering the Middle East. You can follow Sharmine on twitter @snarwani.

Sharmine Narwani: Syria: The Road Behind, The Path Ahead

Posted on December 12, 2013 by 
Sharmine Narwani
Thursday, December 12, 2013
Sharmine Narwani Interviewed by Kourosh Ziabari for Fars News, December 8, 2013.
13920530000250_PhotoII relocated to the Mideast two years ago because I thought there was a need to break through deafening western-constructed narratives on the region, and believed it was important to do this from inside the region, close to events. Blogging for Lebanese news outlet Al Akhbar English didn’t limit me to an Arab audience either – readers from around the world, eager to follow fast-moving events in the Mideast, came to the website for authentic coverage that they were not reading elsewhere.
Protests in Syria were only just starting to break out as I packed up my possessions for the move to Lebanon. Little did I know that later that year I would start to write about Syria – tentatively at first; more determinedly as the picture cleared for me – and that my Syria coverage would become meaningful in helping to break through false narratives propagated in most western media.
My experiences inside Syria changed my worldview forever. The nastiness of geopolitical games, the disregard for human sacrifice, the wretched suffering of innocents – these are life-changing experiences.
But Syria didn’t just impact lives in the Levant. This conflict has fundamentally shifted the global political landscape and ushered us into an era of multilateralism, altered alliances and new priorities.
The foreign media has fallen behind in its coverage, struggling to make sense of a Mideast that has moved beyond sophomoric soundbites and dumbed-down stereotypes. It is local media that is taking the lead, breaking stories and predicting outcomes today. And it is local media, ultimately, that needs to take the lead in defining the future of the Mideast – with home-grown, not foreign, narratives that “frame” developments and aspirations here.
In the next year I hope to do more work with regional media – either in English or for translation. I’ve been fortunate to have many articles translated into French, Portuguese, Greek, Russian, Italian, Spanish, German and other languages. But the greatest gratification has been when they appear in Arabic, Farsi and Turkish.
So to kick things off before the New Year, here is an interview on Syria I gave to Iranian journalist Kourosh Ziabari for publication on Iran’s Fars News website. The interview was conducted in November and appeared a few days ago on Fars’ English website. Am hoping we will see a version in Farsi too:
Q: The United States and its European and Arab allies have been calling for a military invasion of Syria for almost a long time. They view the military option the only solution to the Syrian crisis. However, they are apparently ignoring the massive support of the Syrian people for President Assad as echoed in the street demonstrations of the pro-Assad citizens and the opinion polls which show that a strong majority of the Syrian people want President Assad to remain in power. Aren’t these states disregarding the will of the Syrian people?
A: The conflict in Syria today has been a long time in the making. For years, the US and its western allies have sought to undermine Iran’s influence in the Mideast by targeting its staunchest allies, Syria and Hezbollah. Wikileaks Cables show this quite clearly – a 2006 cable after the Israeli war on Lebanon shows US officials worried about Syrian President Bashar al-Assad’s improved domestic and regional status, and urges the development of a plan of action to “exploit vulnerabilities” – sectarian, economic, political – that could chip away at his legitimacy.
The Arab Uprisings provided a unique opportunity for the US and its allies to exploit the narratives of the uprisings in Tunisia and Egypt and impose them on Syria through blatant media propaganda and subversive activities on the ground. I have often wondered why, for instance, at the same time that Syrian government officials were offering conciliatory measures, dialogue and reforms to defuse tensions in early 2011, vulnerable Syrians in “hot” areas were being sniped at. From the start of events in Syria there has been a determined effort by its adversaries to use sabotage, assassinations, political violence and information warfare to whip up popular sentiment and sway large segments of the populations into supporting a rebellion.
I can’t speak for the veracity of polls taken during this conflict, but it isn’t hard to cobble together a picture of the population demographics that have supported Assad – or specifically, that have rejected the armed rebellion. You have the major cities (Aleppo and Damascus), minorities (Alawite, Druze, Christian, Kurds, Shiite), Baathists (3 million members, most Sunni), the armed forces, the business community, the government elite – most of whom have rejected the militarization of the opposition, if not outright supported Assad. This, in itself, constitutes millions and millions of Syrians whose voices have been entirely ignored until recently.
Karen Koning AbuZayd, a UN commissioner for the Independent International Commission of Inquiry for Syria, said much the same thing earlier this year about persistent support for Assad inside Syria: “There’s quite a number of the population, maybe as many as half – if not more – that stand behind him.”
Q: What do you think about the activities of the foreign-backed rebels and mercenaries who have taken up arms against the Syrian government and are hell-bent on removing President Assad from power? Why are the foreign powers backing, financing and arming them? Isn’t it strange that even some of the Arab states in the region have joined them and are contributing to the destabilization of Syria?
A: The armed opposition has been opportunistic and bloody from the start, targeting security forces, on and off duty, and pro-government civilians since March 2011. While there were indeed Syrian army defectors who joined the “revolution” early on in the conflict in response to government clampdowns and/or their own genuine political sentiments, much of the armed rebellion has been funded, assisted and organized from outside Syria’s borders. We know, for instance, that non-Syrians were entering the country right from the beginning – we have video, photographic and anecdotal evidence of this happening over the Lebanese border, as example. These people were provided with wages, weapons, intelligence and training, with the expectation that a hard thrust against Assad’s government would unseat him in short shrift, much like what had already happened in other Arab states.
When this did not happen, foreign intervention increased substantially, always with the notion that “one more” big effort would cause Assad to fall. Whereas in the past, the enemy had been the US, some European states and Israel, we suddenly started to see the ferocious engagement of Arab regimes in the Syrian conflict – Qatar and Saudi Arabia, assisted by a smattering of other Persian Gulf states, Jordan, Turkey, and jihadists from all corners.
Each may have had their own reasons for participating, but at the core, the Arab states that threw weapons, funding and fighters at Syria were seeking to undermine the Resistance Axis in the region and to create a counter-revolution that would push back Arab popular uprisings against illegitimate regimes. For some though, the fight in Syria became existential. Saudi royals – who view the uprisings and Iran’s influence in the region as being a threat to their very survival – have said that a loss in Syria would mean the loss of their oil-rich, Shiite-dominated Eastern Province. It isn’t a very rational train of thought, but it has been the main impetus behind Saudi support for the armed rebellion.
Q: It sounds like the anti-Syrian opposition groups are not united and cannot follow a cohesive path. Some of them call for dialogue with the government to resolve the disputes, while some of them utterly reject any kind of negotiation, calling for the removal of President Assad and the dissolution of his government. What’s your viewpoint on this inconsistency and lack of harmony among the Syrian opposition?
A: I am assuming you are referring mainly to the externally-based Syrian opposition here. This opposition has been funded and assembled by foreign foes of Syria for geopolitical gain. Their goal was to unseat a “dictator” so that they could then come in and establish their own foreign-backed “dictatorship” at the heart of the Resistance Axis. The reason this opposition has never been able to articulate a cohesive, inclusive, political platform for the Syrian people is because they are all backed by different, sometimes competing, interests, and because their goal is not a politically reformed Syria, but instead the establishment of their own power and economic bases.
The lack of cohesion in this group and the embarrassing infighting that has plagued them from their inception, is a testament to the fact that you cannot just manufacture revolutions, assign leadership, cobble together “governments in exile.” Legitimacy comes from the people who are within the state. Leaders have to earn their positions, based on consensus of some kind that is accepted by the majority. Meanwhile, inside Syria, for nearly three years a peaceful domestic opposition has been ignored by foreign media and governments. These are activists who have credibility among their communities and have the potential to create grassroots movements that can exert pressure on the government to produce desired reforms. But these domestic opposition types were never empowered and encouraged. It goes to show that the foreign backers of the Syrian “revolution” were less interested in reform than they were in assuming power.
And no, I do not foresee the possibility of a last-minute delegation with common goals representing the “opposition” at Geneva talks. It is too late for some things. I believe the major issues that must be tackled to achieve a political solution will be resolved between the Syrian government and key regional and international players in advance of any Geneva talks. The “public” negotiations will just put a pretty face on things for mass consumption. Today, if you want a political solution, you first need the disarmament of the conflict – and this will not be an issue for Syrians to resolve, it is a concession that can only be wrenched from states that arm both the rebels and the Syrian armed forces.
As for whether Assad stays or goes, that is not something that should be decided by external parties at negotiations in Geneva. It is a choice for Syrians only. And I sincerely hope that the Syrian government is obliged to conduct transparent elections under the rigorous supervision of impartial, professional, international observers. It is the only way the next government can enjoy legitimacy.
Q: Why haven’t the international organizations, especially the UN Security Council, prevented the influx of illicit arms and weaponry into Syria which directly reach the rebels and insurgents who not only kill the Syrian army forces, but the innocent civilians, children and women? The Security Council surely knows that the smuggling of arms and ammunitions to the rebels and mercenaries is taking place furtively, but it doesn’t condemn or take action to stop it. Why?
A: At this juncture in our collective political evolution, it befits us to be honest about what we call the “international community.” In effect, this term really only ever refers to those countries that politically and economically dominate our global political system. For the past few decades, “international community” has come to mean the United States and a handful of its allies. Even UN Security Council permanent members Russia and China haven’t truly counted. Nor have the next generation of fast-growth economies and major population centers like India, Brazil, Indonesia and South Africa – until very recently. These second tier players have suddenly begun to insert themselves into critical political and economic developments – and Syria has been the theater in which some of these geopolitical battles have been fought.
The reason the UN and other western-dominated NGOs have not sought to impose punitive measures on parties that weaponized the Syrian conflict is simply because the UN and these NGOs are absolutely dominated by parties backing one side in this conflict. It was not in their interest to do so. Nobody understands the issue of weaponizing conflicts better than these groups – they have spent years churning out analyses and reports that document the dangers of “small arms” in conflict. They know better than anyone that weaponizing conflicts has a direct correlation with the breakdown of law and order, and that human rights violations spike dramatically. They know that even after “peace treaties” are signed, these weapons continue to exchange hands and keep conflict “humming.”
The fact is that the UN could not take action against the weaponization of the Syrian conflict because its dominant members were still seeking a military solution to oust Assad. Now that the US and key western allies are reassessing this route and are pursuing diplomatic solutions for a Syrian exit, we may see an altered NGO posture, where violators are named and punitive actions are taken. It is important to note that the only parties to have vocally advocated for the mutual de-weaponization of the conflict are those states outside the old international “power paradigm” like the BRICS and Iran.
Q: What’s your viewpoint on the state of Syrian refugees who have fled to the neighboring countries such as Jordan, Lebanon and Turkey? They are in dire need of humanitarian assistance, foodstuff, medicine and above all, a permanent shelter; however, it seems that there’s no entity assuming responsibility for them. How does their future life look like? With the current destruction and instability imposed on Syria, can they foresee an early return to their homeland?
A: Nobody is assuming responsibility for them because refugee absorption requires money, which many states have preferred to throw at a military solution inside Syria. When I visited Syria in early 2012, an official with the International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC) told me very specifically, “if the fighting stops today people can return home tomorrow.” At that time, the biggest humanitarian problem they were facing was internal displacement, so he was mainly referring to the fact that continued violence from both sides inside towns and villages was the primary inhibitor of Syrians being able to return to their homes.
Today, that problem has grown exponentially with millions of refugees seeking safety outside Syria’s borders and even more millions being displaced internally. Again, for those interested in assisting refugees, I tell you that the moment the political violence and military operations cease, is the moment that these people can start returning to their communities. Obviously, this would have been easier a year ago – today, so many areas have been leveled by fighting with homes, schools, infrastructure destroyed, that there is sometimes nothing to go home to. But the best solution still remains one that involves rebuilding of communities – that’s where the international financial assistance should go, and not to resettling Syrians outside their countries or in unfamiliar areas within, which is why a solution to this conflict is urgent. We are approaching winter in the Levant, and it is unconscionable that international and regional parties cannot diplomatically agree to demilitarization of the Syrian conflict, so that more lives can be spared. Otherwise our attention will be turned from Syrians getting shot and bombed and beheaded, to Syrian starving and freezing to death.
Q: It was on the reports that US President Barack Obama has ordered a temporary lift on the arms ban to Syria so that certain weaponry and ammunitions could be delivered to the rebels and those whom Secretary of State John Kerry has called “moderate” terrorists. Isn’t this order somewhat hypocritical as the United States has always depicted itself an ardent opponent of terrorism and extremism? How is it possible to justify its overt support for the terrorists in Syria?
A: The US has acted very opportunistically inside Syria, prioritizing interests over values at every turn. It has tacitly and sometimes actively supported those individuals and groups which were Washington’s targets in a decade-long “war on terror.” Washington knows full well that weapons cannot be funneled specifically to “moderates” – rebels will sell them for good money at a moment’s notice, and many of these rebels change groups with great frequency. When Kerry first made that statement about arming the moderates, I got in touch with a US State Department spokesman and asked him repeatedly to name one “moderate” rebel group that “could” potentially be a recipient of American military largesse. He couldn’t.
As is the case with most US foreign policy in the Mideast, we now see an “unintended consequence” emerge – Salafi-Jihadist cells, gangs, militias and networks have grown like weeds, not just in Syria, but throughout the Levant, Persian Gulf and North Africa. This is the main reason the US is now reassessing its interests in Syria and the broader Mideast.
It is ironic that the US spent so many years allegedly fighting terror, when in fact its policies spawned an unprecedented growth in terror groups, networks and activities, both in and out of the Middle East. Today, this arm of American policy has been crippled by the challenges it faces against Salafi extremists. It is why Washington is rapidly altering its position vis-à-vis the Islamic Republic of Iran. The US actually needs Iran now to regionally lead the charge to eliminate these groups, secure borders and help stabilize a very chaotic region.
Q: And a final question; how does the future of Syria look like? From one hand, we have the United States and its regional allies that seem to be strangely intractable and unwilling to allow the Syrian people to decide their fate, and from the other hand, there are the foreign-backed terrorists, Al-Qaeda fighters and Al-Nusra Front warriors that are carrying out bloody operations every single day. Can we foresee a peaceful future for Syria one day?
A: I’m a rare optimist on Syria. I firmly believe we have the potential to see the reestablishment of a secure and unified Syria with a modified and reformed central government.
I don’t believe that this can be achieved only via a political solution, however. As I said earlier, a political outcome must first be reached between the regional and international parties that weaponize the conflict. This is stage one. The next stage will need global consensus because it entails a massive military push to purge Syria and its neighbors of jihadists and their local brethren. This will consist of several things: aiding and empowering the Syrian army to use full military force against these groups inside Syria; a worldwide effort to inhibit the financing of militants by individuals and states and slapping punitive measures against violators; heavily policed borders in Syria, Turkey, Iraq, Jordan, Lebanon.
This may not be easy, but it is not difficult either – if the political will is there. And I believe we are coming to that stage – where Syria’s western and Arab foes, with the exception of Saudi Arabia, Israel and wealthy financiers of jihad, have fully realized the dangers of allowing this conflict to continue and political violence to escalate to these levels. Jihadists from dozens of countries, from all continents, have found a haven in Syria, and are spreading with relative impunity into neighboring states. If this trend is not stemmed, they will come back home and wreak their carnage there.
The final stage is reconstruction – which will again require the material assistance of the international community – and elections.
How is all this possible? And if it were, why haven’t we seen these measures being implemented earlier? I do not believe the political will existed until recently. I think Washington’s threat to launch military strikes against Syria was a “last stand,” and it failed because the west knows it cannot fight any more wars in the Mideast or predict outcomes. It also knows that Syria’s rebels have become everyone’s worst nightmare. The US knows it is going to need regional help to unwind this conflict – and that its traditional allies are unable to deliver, hence the “unprecedented” negotiations between Iran and the P5+1 in Geneva. Geopolitical realities have fundamentally shifted. Yesterday’s enmities do not compare to the horrors ahead for the international community if the jihadi genie is not put back into its bottle.
These new alliances will not only work to resolve the Syrian conflict and re-stabilize the state, but will also serve to push “stability” throughout the region.T

Mother Agnes Mariam: In Her Own Words

Posted on November 30, 2013 by 


By Sharmine Narwani

American national security journalist Jeremy Scahill and leftist British columnist Owen Jones announced recently that they would not share a platform with a Palestinian-Lebanese nun at the Stop The War Coalition’s November 30 UK conference.

Neither Scahill nor Jones provided any reason for their harsh “indictment” of Mother Agnes Mariam, who has worked tirelessly for the past few years on reconciliation in war-torn Syria, where she has lived for two decades.

The journalists – neither of whom have produced any notable body of work on Syria – appear to have followed the lead of a breed of Syria “activists” who have given us doozies like “Assad is about to fall,” “Assad has no support,” “the opposition is peaceful,” “the opposition is unarmed,” “this is a popular revolution,” “the revolution is not foreign-backed,” “there is no Al Qaeda in Syria,” “the dead are mostly civilians,” and other such gems.

For some of these activists, anything short of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad’s departure is no solution of any kind. Mother Agnes Mariam, whose Mussalaha (Reconciliation) movement inside Syria works specifically on mediation, dialogue and the promotion of non-violence, is unmoved by black-and-white solutions: Reconciliation, after all, is a series of political settlements forged on both local and national levels. There are only compromises there, not absolute gain. She doesn’t actually care who leads Syria and who wins or loses, providing the choice comes from a Syrian majority.

Yet the smear “Assad apologist” persists in following Mother Agnes on her visits to foreign capitals to gain support for Massalaha and its methods. It puts her at risk on the ground in Syria and inhibits her ability to open communications with those who would otherwise welcome the relief she brings.

When Scahill and Jones announced they would not share a platform with Mother Agnes at the STWC conference, she withdrew so as not to undermine the event’s anti-war unity objective. But instead of bringing this incident to a close, a maelstrom has erupted around the actions of the two journalists: “Who are they to pass judgement? Why would reporters seek to censor any voice?”

Award-winning British journalist and author Jonathan Cook perhaps put it best in his piece entitled“Bowing before the inquisitors on Syria”:

“Scahill and Jones have not done something principled or progressive here. They are trying to stay ‘onside’ with the corporate media, the main political parties and the Syria war-mongers. In short, they are looking out for their careers…They are looking to keep their credibility within a wider political system that, they otherwise seem to acknowledge, is deeply compromised and corrupt. In this episode, they are not chiefly worrying about countering moves towards an attack or saving Syrian lives, even while they claim this is exactly what their participation is about.”

Both journalists are outspoken against the censorship of information by the “establishment media” so it is particularly galling to see them succumb to the bullying narratives that have so dominated Syria coverage in the mainstream. In their own domain and area of expertise they don’t trust establishment voices, so why trust them in any other arena? This rather obvious contradiction has turned the tables on Scahill/Jones – if anything, generating interest in Mother Agnes and what she has to say.

Time to give her that platform back – no need for others to filter your information, you can judge for yourself below. And because so much of this debate has taken place on Twitter and the blogosphere, I invited “tweeps” from all sides of the Syrian divide to pose some questions too:

So without further ado, here is Mother Agnes Mariam, in her own words:

Did the Stop The War Coalition ask you to withdraw from their anti-war conference or did you choose to do so of your own volition?

I was invited to this conference, then I was informed about people that were against my coming and threatening to blow it up because of me. I preferred to immediately withdraw for the sake of this conference. Now, to tell you the truth I also have fear that this conference will not be useful, because these people attending are not applying non-violence principles. Non-violence principles means to be open to all adversaries. We can deal with people who don’t think like us. A non-violent approach is to dialogue precisely with people who are different. For a peace conference to begin like this, I felt like it is not a peace conference.

Have you ever heard of Jeremy Scahill and Owen Jones before this?

No, not at all. Who are they? Didn’t even notice who the people were. I heard about this from my organizer – that some people opposed even my presence. I understand everybody – I have been in dialogue with precisely the kind of people who opposed my presence. But it is the first time I hear their names, so no, I don’t know them. I’m not a person in the “scene.” (laughs)

What do you think of the attempt to censor views on Syria – and does your own experience this week have any correlation with how the mainstream media has covered Syria for almost three years?

You know, before working in reconciliation, I thought the so-called “democratic world” was really protecting freedom of expression and political choices. I am not involved with politics but they are ‘framing’ me; politicizing me. Am very shocked to learn that in this democratic world it is forbidden to think differently, talk differently and act differently from people who proclaim themselves as the ‘absolute reference’ for public opinion. This is a campaign of defamation. I am threatened by them: not by Jabhat al-Nusra, with whom I sometimes have good relations, or Al Qaeda – but by French media, by prominent leaders and CEOs of catholic NGOs, and by reporters. Am really astonished at how a reporter can become a prosecutor and a judge and can issue the sentence, and I am afraid that he can apply this sentence because today I see he works in total impunity.

Some media outlets and activists have accused you of brokering a civilian evacuation in rebel-held Moadamiya, only to hand them over to the Syrian authorities. What actually happened?

It was a purely humanitarian endeavor. Our (Mussalaha) team receives calls from all over Syria asking us to investigate people who have disappeared, to find out conditions for their release, to mediate on prisoner exchanges, to get food supplies to populations in need, how to transport humanitarian aid to hot areas, how to bring medical equipment to dangerous areas, how to arrange ceasefires, how to help violent opponents to shift to non-violence. We help to implement a non-violent spirit – we work with everybody, all sides, to do this.

This particular evacuation was requested by the civilian population itself in Mouadamiya. We have Mussalaha team members from Mouadamiya who are mediators. We were addressing the humanitarian issue in Moadamiya for many months before this, to try to make reconciliation from a violent opposition to a non-violent opposition. And when I saw photos of starving children on the Facebook – like in Biafra – I went to the Syrian Minister of Social Affairs Kinda al-Chammat to say this was not acceptable and that we should do something. Then we made contact with all the world health groups and international NGOs – we had talks with them to provide food. A caravan of more than 20 trucks was ready to enter Moadamiya, but it was forbidden to enter. It is difficult to say by who – I think it was from the army that was besieging this rebel stronghold, but also from the warlords that fix enormous prices to provide the entrance of food. Minister Chammat was really open to finding a solution, I said if they are not giving us the green light, I will go myself to take the 18 children who were under threat of dying. So we were entrusted to negotiate with the notables and the families in Moadamiya. Our mediators (also from Moadamiya) were surprised when whole families expressed the wish to be evacuated – because they are the families of the rebels, and to ask to be evacuated means they will be relying on the government. When we heard this we thought it was an easier and safer solution because if you bring in food but the violence continues, those civilians will be harmed anyway.

You know, under the Geneva Convention, it is illegal to transform a residential area into a battleground and if you do that you cannot keep civilians there like human shields. So the evacuation was motivated first by the desire of the families (not all, you know). The first project was to evacuate 100-200 women and children without any of their belongings, because there was a big fear that undisciplined members from either side would breach the ceasefire. It was delicate. Then on the very day, Minister Chammat, seeing hundreds of women and children arriving, told us “let as many who want to leave come out, because we cannot make discrimination,” so she made it open for that day. The government agreed to let us go alone; we were not escorted. All this was done in negotiations between the ministry and the governor of rural Damascus. Our responsibility was to bring the civilians to the barricade, but when we went there the rebels did not allow the women to proceed. I concluded, through contacts with the families that they were willing to come out, but we had to negotiate directly with the rebels. So I took a white flag into the area called no man’s land. I was followed by two of our mediators and by Sister Carmel – and it was heroic from her because she is a fearful person but she didn’t want me to go alone. There were tens of young rebel men, some armed, others not. And we were taken on a tour to see the destruction of the city and they asked us to come to the military council. (A video of Mother Agnes inside Moadamiya can be viewed here) They gave us security assurance. The commander arrived and they asked me to make a statement, which they recorded by video. But then we were detained, they wanted us to remain like ransom in exchange to let the women go out. We were hearing many noises and even gunfire while we were waiting. Then a real battle broke out – it was a big danger for everybody. We noticed that among them there was no unity, each would say their own thing. Finally, another leader came and agreed to the evacuation. Many of the leaders of fighters wanted their own families to leave. Others who don’t have families didn’t care. All we did was to answer a humanitarian request from rebel families.

In total, we evacuated 6,600 women and children – we have all their names, they are all registered. More than 200 are not registered because they left immediately with relatives. Also 650 young men came on their own to surrender. The army considered them as fighters. A few were badly wounded and they were taken to hospital. The (media) criticism was based on fake stories because the opposition (not the ones in Moadamiyada) do not want to accept the success of reconciliation based on mediation between the government and rebels. And because – after the success of the Moadamiya evacuation – ten other points in Syria have asked for the same mediation. Yesterday, for example, we had another evacuation – from Beit Sahm I believe – who were evacuated temporarily until the violence ceases. These critics said many were killed, abducted, raped when they came out of Moadamiya. Yes, there have been some errors and undisciplined acts. For instance, nine of the women were robbed. Volunteers from the ‘popular committees’ robbed their gold. We have done this evacuation in three separate days. On the first day we had 20 boys that were arrested, but we launched a campaign about this and they have been released. There are only two young boys now who are detained. We are still following up to secure them. The rebels with whom we have negotiated have entrusted us with their families, and they are the families of leaders and fighters, not just normal families. Until today, the two boys who disappeared after the Moadamiya evacuations are a problem for me and my credibility with the rebels. I am struggling with the authorities to find these boys right now.

The other major attack against you stems from a report you wrote about the aftermath of an alleged chemical weapons (CW) attack in Ghouta. You are accused of whitewashing the incident, blaming rebels for it and even charging children of “faking death.” How do you respond to these charges?

I have been accused of denying CW attacks, of protecting the Syrian regime and of accusing the rebels of launching those attacks. I have never said this. In the foreward of a study I did on this, I affirm: I am not an expert. I am not talking on a military basis, or a forensic or medical basis. I just questioned some videos. It started because I was asked by the parents – survivors of a terrible massacre in the Latakia mountains – to help find some children abducted with women after the massacre. Some had recognized their children in the pictures of the chemical attacks. They delegated me to look into this for them. I was tracking those children in the videos – without this task I would not have had any incentive to look at the videos. My work at the monastery was in iconography and restoration (preservation) – I am very used to using my eyes to look for tiny details. I noticed discrepancies in the videos. I came to look at them for one thing (the abducted children) and in the process I discovered these videos were fake. When I went to Geneva to the commissioners in the Human Rights Council, I told them about my findings in relation to the missing children and the videos, and they said they would be interested to have something written. I do not incriminate anybody in this study. I do not pretend to decide if there was a CW attack or not. There were discrepancies and I am simply asking questions. The study was done in a hurry – we even said it was a beta version. Now I am finalizing the study that will introduce even more evidence. Those videos – numbers 1, 6, 11, 13 among the 13 videos claimed by the US intelligence community as authenticated and verified to be presented to Congress as genuine evidence of CW attacks – are fake, staged and pre-fabricated. Nobody thus far is answering my charges – they are incriminating me without answering. My goal in this is to find the children; that’s my only goal. If they were used for staging, are they alive? Where are they now? If they are alive they must be returned to their families. If they are dead, we want to see their bodies to bury them so their parents can mourn them and we want to know how they were put to death and where. I am asking to see the graves where 1,466 alleged corpses are buried in Ghouta and to take from the pit samples to conduct an honest inquiry. Because I doubt that there is such a pit.

Question from Twitter user ‏‪@MortenHj‬: “Can she elaborate on how she conduct her talks between the warring sides? How do they acknowledge her; promise safety?”

Normally, we are called by the rebel sides who invite us for some settlements. Usually Syrian fighters either want to shift to non-violence, surrender and continue their lives, or they want us to mediate an exchange between abductees and detainees. We mediate among the responsible parties in government, like the ministry of justice and ministry of social affairs – it depends, since each case has its own context. We do it on a neutral basis – we are mediators, not part of the conflict. We want to ease the fate of civilians and we consider the fate of the Syrian rebels. We do not care about foreign fighters. Those foreign fighters are legally not allowed to enter or be in Syria. But we have special care for the Syrian fighters. We consider them as victims. A 17 or 18-year-old boy who is to be jailed, his mother is crying, what am I to do?

We talk via phone or Skype, sometimes we visit them as I did in many places. Sometimes the leader of a rebel group come to see me in a disguised way. Our (more detailed) talks are preferably face to face to build trust and transparency.

Sometimes you have rebels who request the release of their people who have been captured, others want to surrender – they don’t want anymore to participate in the armed struggle. Sometimes the liberal factions ask for help against the radical factions. I always say that between Syrians there is not a real wall. There is not a watertight impervious wall, so we receive many requests. We have had meetings with Jabhat al Nusra (JaN). When they are Syrians they can be flexible, when they are radical (foreigners) they will not talk to you, they will kill you. It’s like the Baggara tribe of around 3 million – they have relatives in Liwa al-Tawhid and JaN too. Half the tribe are loyalists, half are opposition. And this is a hope for the future. Everybody can talk to everybody. Once in Raqqa they put me on the phone with the emir because they wanted dialysis equipment for their hospital and so we mediated and the ministry of health sent 3 dialysis machines for the sake of the civilian population. I am always astonished how my people in the reconciliation committee know everybody.

Question from Twitter user @Kreasechan – What does she think should happen to those in command positions in the regime who have committed or commissioned war crimes and crimes against humanity?

I will tell you something. All this ‘apparatus of incriminations’ is politicized. If you can read between the lines of the report of the international Commission of Inquiry, you will see that the Syrian government has a hierarchy so it is easy to incriminate the government as a whole. But the rebels don’t have a hierarchy – you have 2,000 different battalions. Every time you see violence by rebels, large scale ones with hundreds of civilians now killed every week on a sectarian basis… If you study the more than 100,000 dead in Syria, you will be surprised to see that more than 45% of them are from the army and security forces. Then you have 35% of civilians among those dead, more than half of whom are killed by opposition. Then you have 15-20% of dead who are rebels. So it is not true to say the government is the only one perpetrating things against human rights. The Commission of Inquiry will have to work without political pressure to implement a good inquiry where everyone will be heard, because we are scandalized that light is shed on one side, but not on the other side. I know by saying this, they will incriminate me. But in reality, I am on side of the victims – I care that they will be heard. If you don’t hear from every side, these victims will continue to be under violence with impunity. We must ask accountability from everybody. Those incriminated by a fair, unbiased inquiry will have to pay their crimes, even those who have instigated and financed sectarian crimes.

Question from Twitter user @Paciffreepress – Do you love Assad, Mother Agnes?

I live in Syria and I have a burden on my shoulders for Syria. I believe beheading Syria from its government is a dangerous aggression when the UN still continues to consider the government of Assad to be the legal government. I rely on the UN position, which is the legal position. I consider that the dismantling of any State is a crime against humanity because it deprives the citizens of their citizenship and from their legality. They becomes pariahs. The Syrian people should decide through fair elections.

Question from Twitter user @r3sho – What is her opinion about Kurdish autonomy in Syria?

I am with the Syrian people – they will choose their own way, even if they want to make a federation or whatever. I am personally against the division of Syria, but federalism is up to the people. In my view, dividing a country is an aggression, but if the country decides to be a federation, it is a legal thing. They are free to do so.

Question from Twitter user ‏@broodmywarcraft: what does she have to say to those who call her a stooge for Assad?

I am a stooge only for peace, not for Assad. I am for peace through reconciliation. I am for dialogue and I am for discussing issues with everybody who wants to discuss peace. If any Syrian, on any side of this horrible conflict wishes to discus peace or work toward peace through reconciliation, I am ready to help.

Question from Twitter user ‏@bangpound: Does she still think the children were faking it in Ghouta?

They were not faking it. I never said that at all. I believe that they were either under anesthesia or that they were killed. But as the videos are fake, my terrible question is what were they doing with them?

Question from Twitter user ‏@Nouraltabbaa: If she is trying to perform a Mussalaha why is she meeting with Ali Kayyali and other militias but not the opposition fighters?

For some hard cases, I have to go beyond the civil administration to negotiate with the warlords. We go there officially as a reconciliation committee, accompanied by some Muslim clerics. I have to mediate with the opposition and the government and the popular committees. I have to mediate with everyone.

Question from Twitter user ‏@HRIMark: What effect is the campaign of defamation and threats against her having on her and her work?

It affects my life. I cannot go back to my monastery. I was saved by the Free Syrian Army (FSA). They informed me about orders to abduct and kill me by foreign parties. They helped me to go out from Qara and they protected our monastery and they have not, to this day, given me the green light to return. A lot of them were workers in our monastery.

Question from Twitter user ‏‪@Net_News_Global‬: Ask her, if she thinks, that there was, besides murderous propaganda, a real CW attack.

We have witnesses and ‘social sensors’ everywhere in Damascus. Until today we have received 88 claims of death in Moadamiya (from the August 21 attack).

We are told they were not killed because of sarin, that they were killed because of heavy shelling from the army and from suffocation from heavy shelling. The deceased were together in a shelter and they suffocated from this. Moadamiya people told us this. One of the reasons that I would like to see the graves is because 1,466 deaths is a real “social tsunami” in the Syrian society where everybody knows everybody and everybody is related. In the case of East Ghouta, we did not even have one case show up. We did not know of one single person who is dead. You know, to have relatives claiming this – the brother, the friend – nobody did. We did not have the “echo” of the death of 1,466 people. We are asking for a neutral inquiry with the presence of witnesses from both sides, where they will open the pits, see the victims, they will take samples randomly – where they took it, how they took it, etc. Samples should be sent to 5 labs under the same conditions and precautions. Until then there is a question mark on everything. I cannot say yes, I cannot say no.

Question from Twitter user ‏‪@tob_la‬: How would she describe her relationship with Syrian intelligence services?

There is no relationship. This is despite the wild allegations of some people who believe that the heads of the Syrian intelligence meet with me, a simple nun, on a daily basis. Do you believe that these people would spare such time?

I have no “relations” with such authorities. As mediators we have to deal with these people when necessary. And without my mediation task I don’t have anything to do with them.

Question from Twitter user ‏‪@MortenHj‬: What does she view as the biggest problem facing the refugees, especially children, with the approaching winter. How can anyone support?

This is a very big problem. We need warm clothes, blankets urgently. During my trip in the US – from California – they are sending me a container with a special kind of textile that is very warm. “Oakley” warm clothing. We can provide for the local diaspora or NGOs to come collect these things from anywhere in the world and send them in containers to Syria. We are trying to do a big push for winter now. We’re also getting some tents. I will be going back to the US where an NGO will be providing us with something that resembles tents, but is rectangular. We are planning to get thousands of these – one per family. You have whole neighborhoods that are destroyed. Instead of displacing residents outside their areas, I would like to return them to their home, even if it is destroyed, and put them on their land in a refurbished structure. Like this, slowly by slowly they can rebuild their homes.

Question by Twitter user ‏@edwardedark: Could you please ask her why the Vatican has not been more outspoken on the plight of Christians in Syria?

I don’t know – maybe because the Vatican and all of us we are in solidarity with all the civilian population in Syria and we don’t want to emphasize a sectarian dimension because we viewed this as artificial. Christians have shared the same fate as Muslims in Syria – everybody faced the same violence. Monsignor Mamberti and the Pope are finally expressing their sadness for the sectarian nature that the conflict is taking, I think because now there is too much targeting of Christians now in Maaloula, Sadad, Qara, Deir Atieh, Nabek and other places. Every day Christian buses, schools are being targeted. In Bab Touma, Bab Sharqi, Jaramana, Kasa’a, Malki…

Now the Vatican is talking. Mgr. Mamberti is saying loudly and clearly that The Holy See cares about unity, sovereignty, and the place of the minorities so they will not be isolated, cornered, or forgotten. The Holy See is promoting reconciliation, dialogue and a peaceful settlement of the crisis. They are against the arming of any side. They want more creativity for peace and not creativity for war. What I found outstanding about the Monsignor’s recent comments is that he said the Syrian people should isolate the foreigners, distance themselves and denounce them. This is a very clear statement against foreign intervention. Then he opened the issue of humanitarian aid and the dialogue between religions – interfaith dialogue. This is not the task of experts, but the task of everybody, the believers. So there is a real change in language from the Vatican. The Holy See is no longer shy about Syria – and to tell you the truth, it is time. What is left for the Christians in Syria otherwise?

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Forget Democrazy, Give Me Safe Borders

Almost three years after the Arab Spring began its region-wide sweep – ostensibly in search of democratic change – scant attention has been paid to one of its most dangerous consequences: the fraying of borders.

Weapons, militias, foreign Special Forces, smugglers, gangs and crooks now regularly traverse borders from the Levant to the Maghreb to the Persian Gulf. And these territorial infractions across Yemen, Libya, Syria, Egypt, Tunisia, Iraq, Jordan, Lebanon and other states will inhibit prospects for “democracy” more than any single development in the region.

The logic? Very simply, this:

If you don’t have territorial integrity, you don’t have a “state.” If you don’t have a state, you cannot build institutions. If you don’t have institutions, you will never have representative government.

The foreign geniuses who thought they could invade and “regime-change” their way to “democracy” with first Iraq and Afghanistan, then Libya and Syria, forgot the foundational elements of a nation-state – namely, sovereignty and territorial integrity. When you cross a border uninvited and undermine a central government, you rip at the seams of the state itself.

And so we call them “failed states” sometimes, pretending that these entities still retain some semblance of statehood for which parliaments and constitutions and armies can legitimately be assembled.
I chuckle at the attempts of Lebanese politicians to cobble together a new government while gunmen traipse across their borders, unimpeded, just a few miles away. I roll my eyes at the “elected” and “selected” Syrian external opposition – disembodied pashas who don’t have a square-inch of land to call their own. And I cringe when “experts” reference democratic underpinnings in Libya, Tunisia and Iraq, where central authority is as evasive as border security.

“But you have no state,” I want to say.

It is an as-yet unframed idea, yet the clever Arab Street seems to sense this where others don’t – hence the dramatic recent rise in fortunes of national armies, possibly the only functioning institutions in many of these wobbly states, and the only entity that can safeguard borders.

Egypt gets it. Syria gets it. Iraq cannot, nor can Yemen, Libya or Lebanon – they don’t have strong centralized armies or authorities that can credibly work toward shutting down borders and re-establishing security. When Egyptian General Abdel Fattah al-Sisi ejected an elected government, he understood that lawlessness in the Sinai and calls for Jihad in Syria, Libya and elsewhere would erode the Egyptian state. When Syrian President Bashar al-Assad called for reinforcement to fight the tide of foreign fighters flooding Syria’s borders, this was a rallying call for Russia, Hezbollah and Iran to protect their own borders.

Dictators? Tyrants? Maybe, maybe not. But also perhaps the last buffers against the destruction of the nation-state.

Porous borders will delegitimize any central authority over time. And the lack of sovereignty will in turn breed the kind of lawlessness that further erodes territorial integrity.

Yes, “statelessness” is the biggest threat to “democracy” in the Middle East today.

A Threat to the Global Order

Writing about military interventions in general, and in Syria in particular, former US Secretary of State Henry Kissinger pointed out last year:

“In the absence of a clearly articulated strategic concept, a world order that erodes borders and merges international and civil wars can never catch its breath.”

Kissinger was, in effect, questioning whether the endless stream of US interventions under the guise of “humanitarian” or democracy-promoting militarism, was not fundamentally eroding the world order established in 17th century Europe by the Treaty of Westphalia.

The Westphalian system – which sought to inhibit warring European armies from imposing their religious beliefs on each other – was the precursor to the establishment of the nation-state, which Kissinger calls “the basic unit of international order.”

The nation-state, in turn, is predicated on two commonly acknowledged qualities: sovereignty and territorial integrity.

But a quick glance at the Middle East today will show the precarious position of the nation-state in this region:

Sovereignty, which is essentially the recognition of “authority” over a geographic area, is being expediently dismissed by regional and international foes in a very dangerous way. Foreign demands that “Assad must go” or “Qaddafi must leave” or “Ahmadinejad is illegitimate” are quick sovereignty-busters – leadership changes must only manifest through an internal process via consensus, whether it is at the ballot box or through domestic dissent of the majority.

Territorial Integrity was once viewed as an integral principle of international relations whereby states would not impose border changes by force or subversion, but today the concept of “humanitarian intervention” under the banner of Responsibility to Protect (R2P) has fundamentally challenged this tenet of the nation-state system.

As things stand now, if you can convincingly demonize a foe, you can bulldoze through sovereignty and territorial integrity under cover of R2P with nary a concern for undermining international law.

But each time this happens, we destroy another foundational brick propping up our global system. And it won’t be long before Massachusetts decides it has nothing in common with Texas, and Wales tells England to take a hike.

The US National Intelligence Council (NIC) published its forecast on global trends earlier this year and warned of the scenario of a “Nonstate World” in which governments relinquish much of their responsibilities to self-governed enclaves. That scenario is already playing out in the Middle East, and unless we move to preserve the current system of statehood, it will fast become the new world order.

While foreign military invasions are a sure-fire democracy-buster, just as insidious is the subversion of governments and populations via propaganda, sabotage, assassinations and “dirty tricks.”

Take, for instance, Iran. The Islamic Republic should technically be able to enjoy a flourishing democracy, given that it vigorously controls its borders and has a strong, elected, central government. But the country cannot stretch its wings because of the daily barrage of information warfare, cyber warfare and foreign-backed dirty tricks focused on undermining the central authority, its various institutions, and its armed forces.

The Arab uprisings, however, brought with them a whole new set of challenges. Sudden instability arose across the region with the rapid removal of long-term governing authorities – inviting aggressive competing interests seeking to establish their own power bases. Weapons flowed across borders and jihadists began an ideological trek that has now
Salafi extremist groups, which reject the nation-state system, were natural entrants into the fray. They thrive where there is chaos; they gravitate toward security vacuums. These are the very environments and conditions in which extremists can usurp authority, lay down Sharia law and erect their “Caliphates.”

And they leap from local to transnational jihadi networks in an instant. Ideologically extremist fighters from Libya, Tunisia, Egypt, Saudi Arabia, Afghanistan, Pakistan, Chechnya and dozens of other nations make their way toward the “fight” and the new “base” in Qalamoun or Sinai or Anbar – wherever the call for Jihad beckons.

We are in a tough place in the Middle East today. Between Western-GCC-Turkish-backed regime-change operations and the jihadist lava pouring over our borders, the nation-state is eroding before our very eyes.

Democracy? Forget it.

Give me a strong army that will shoot down armed men crossing over my border.

 Give me a national leader who will show no mercy in facing down car-bombings, assassinations, sabotage.

Give me a statesman who will respect your religion but blow you into your “janna” if you try to snuff out mine.

Yes, I want governance based on consensus, rule of law and justice. But give me safe borders, first.

Sharmine Narwani is a commentary writer and political analyst covering the Middle East. You can follow Sharmine on twitter @snarwani.

Chemical Weapons Expert Opinion on the UN Report on Syria

by Sharmine Narwani
Global Research, October 01, 2013

While investigating the UN Report on chemical weapons (CW) use in Ghouta, Syria, we sought a multitude of opinions from experts and others who offered insightful observations. We published our findings in an article entitled: Questions Plague UN Report on Syria.

To learn more about Sarin and other nerve gases used in warfare, you would be hard pressed to find any better hands-on experience than in Iran, a country that suffered directly – and repeatedly – from Iraq’s use of CWs during the 1980-88 war between the two countries.

In Iran itself, there are few as qualified to speak about Sarin and other nerve gases as Dr. Abbas Foroutan, whose 2004 articles were reviewed in Neurology by Col. Jonathan Newmark of the Chemical Casualty Care Division, US Army Medical Research Institute of Chemical Defense.

The reviewer refers to Dr. Foroutan’s work as “the only firsthand clinical descriptions of battlefield nerve agent casualties in the world literature” and is viewed as a valuable contribution to the US and NATO understanding of the treatment of casualties in chemical warfare:

“Foroutan’s lessons learned reassure us that a robust medical evacuation system, coupled with timely and appropriate medical care of nerve agent poisoning, will save many more lives on future battlefields.”

Upon our request, Dr. Foroutan reviewed the UN Report on Syria and provided us with some critical insights, addressing the issues of environmental and human sampling conducted by the UN investigators in Ghouta.

Based on his unique experience with casualties of nerve gas, Dr. Foroutan pointed out stark symptom irregularities displayed by Ghouta patients:

1. Sarin gas does not cause inflammation in the eye. We have observed many cases during Iraq’s war against Iran and victims presented with only brief and temporary redness in the eye. Here, 22% of cases still displayed inflammation after 5-7 days.
2. Miosis [constricted pupils] has been observed in 14% of cases while disorientation has been seen in 39% of the cases. This ratio is not logical. It is obligatory that complete raw data charts of the patients be published so that the correlation index between signs and symptoms of this case and other cases be calculated.
3. Regarding the 19% convulsion report: the reports from the victims themselves are not acceptable as they would have been unconscious at the time of convulsion. Unless others report the convulsion in the victim, these reports are otherwise unreliable.
4. The prescription of Atropine: this medicine is the most essential antidote for Sarin exposures and if a large amount of it is taken quickly and intravenously, it will save the patient . Rapid recovery of a severe case with high dose of atropine suggest the patient was exposed to a substance similar to nerve gas[sarin]. Unfortunately the information given is very incomplete and it has not been noted how exactly the patients have reacted to this cure.
5. Mentioning the vital signs like the pulse rate and blood pressure, which because of sarin classically become slow and low and subsequently atropine raises it up, is also an important diagnostic sign which unfortunately has not been recorded in the patients documents. Another important sign is auscultation of “wheezing” in the victims lungs, similar to the noise coming from an asthmatic patient, has not been mentioned. This neglection is abnormal.
6. Activity of an enzyme called “acetylcholinesterase” in the plasma and red blood cells will reduced immensely with nerve gases like sarin; and will reactivate (re-synthesize) after weeks until it becomes normal. Sarin is an acetylcholinesterase inhibitor substance. Experts across the world are well informed of the importance of this lab data[reporting enzyme activity]. During the holy defense (Iran Iraq war) we would measure it in the frontline emergency center as a routine diagnostic test. The importance is that in moderate to severe cases, it decreases heavily without exception. Why has this examination not been done?
7. The claim of the identification of sarin molecules a week later in the biological samples needs an exact report of methodology of measurement for other experts of the world because of the high chance of technical error.
8. Regarding the environmental samples: according to the pictures, a lot of the places have been under the sunlight and due to the fact that sarin is very volatile, the claim of sarin detection should be accompanied with more description by the experts.

Overall in my view this report should be received/accepted medically with great caution and should be observed again by a team of international expert clinicians. My intention is not the denial of sarin but at least from the clinical point of view, the evidences of this report are not enough to prove the existence of a nerve gas [sarin] in this incident.

Dr. Foroutan also brought up a very important point about the UN’s assumption of Sarin in its testing, which can lead to false positives. In Appendix 7 of the UN Report, a notable number of the samples tested by two separate labs register different results:

“There is a possibility of a false positive recognition/diagnosis of sarin and by-products caused by natural decomposition and impurities with the primary gas.
An important point is that it seems the team has set up its experiment methods according to the pre-assumption that sarin had been used.
That is why it should be requested that all of the experiment/lab measurements should be published with the details of sample preparation and analysis methods and also even the pictures and files of the curve from the analysis devices.
During the imposed war (Iran Iraq war) a case of poisoning of the Iranian soldiers by Mycotoxins was reported by a credible lab in Belgium. They were definitely found in the urine and plasma samples but later we were informed that it was a false positive. In the UN study after the war it was proven that Iraq had no activity regarding the production of mycotoxins.”

I was informed that the above observations “were discussed in a medical gathering at the Shaheed Beheshti University of Medical Sciences led by Professor Abbas Foroutan.”
While we were fortunate to reach Dr. Foroutan for his insights on the UN Report, I am publishing this information now because he took the trouble of writing it out and sending it to me via an academic colleague who translated his comments in their entirety.

The Ghouta Chemical Attacks: US-Backed False Flag

The Ghouta Chemical Attacks: US-Backed False Flag? Killing Syrian Children to Justify a “Humanitarian” Military Intervention

 The chemical attacks which took place in East Ghouta on August 21, 2013 could be the most horrific false flag operation in history.

To date, available evidence indicates that numerous children were killed by “opposition rebels”, their bodies manipulated and filmed with a view to blaming the Syrian government for the attacks, thus sparking outrage and galvanizing worldwide public opinion in favor of another bloody, imperial US-led war.

While confirming the use of chemical weapons against civilians, the UN report has failed to identify the authors of the attacks:

Instead of a non-politicized investigation and lab analysis, the UN investigation of alleged nerve-gas attacks inside Syria was led by Professor Ake Sellstrom, a man of mystery who keeps a veil of secrecy around his research and political-military relationships…

This cosmetic veneer of Swedish neutrality has been deftly exploited by Israel and NATO to perpetrate falsehoods throughout Sellstrom’s work for the UN, including denial of the chemical-and-biological causes for “Gulf War Syndrome” and the shipments of U.S. chemical weapons to the Saddam Hussein regime…

What is publicly known about Sellstrom is that the biochemist heads the European CBRNE Center [Center for advanced Studies of Societal Security and Vulnerability, in particular major incidents with (C)hemical, (B)iological, (R)adiological, (N)uclear and (E)xplosive substances], at Umea University in northern Sweden, which is sponsored by the Swedish Defense Ministry (FOI)…

Umea University is deeply involved in joint research with Technion (Israel Institute of Technology), the Haifa-based university that provides state-of-art technology to the Israel Defense Force (IDF) and its intelligence agencies. Several departments, which are involved in joint Israeli research, participate in multidisciplinary studies at Sellstrom’s CBRNE center…

American ambassador to the UN Samantha Power made emphatically clear that the “nerve gas used in Syria was more concentrated than the nerve gas in Iraq.” Her statement should be rephrased as: “Saddam may have trans-shipped U.S.-supplied nerve gas into Syria, but it wasn’t our nerve gas used against Syrian civilians.”

That is the essential point of the Sellstrom report: To take Washington off the hook for being the major supplier of nerve gas precursors, formulations, delivery technology and storage systems to the Middle East, including Israel, Egypt, Libya, Iraq and very possibly Syria (during the Clinton era of good will).

The UN report of chemical weapons on Syria lacks basic credibility due to the duplicitous record of its chief inspector, Ake Sellstrom, who is politically and financially compromised at every level. (Yoichi Shimatsu, The Sellstrom Report: The United Nations’ Syria Inspector Shills for NATO and Israel)

A day beforte the release of the UN Mission report, another carefully documented report by Mother Agnes Mariam de la Croix and the International Support Team for Mussalaha in Syria (ISTEAMS) was released with minimal media coverage. (To read the full report in pdf click here large pdf slow download)

Its findings are unequivocal: the videos used by the US and its allies as evidence to blame the Syrian government were staged.

The study says:

From the moment when some families of abducted children contacted us to inform us that they recognized the children among those who are presented in the videos as victims of the Chemical Attacks of East Ghouta, we decided to examine the videos thoroughly…

Our first concern was the fate of the children we see in the footages. Those angels are always alone in the hands of adult males that seem to be elements of armed gangs. The children that trespassed remain without their families and unidentified all the way until they are wrapped in the white shrouds of the burial. Moreover our study highlights without any doubt that their little bodies were manipulated and disposed with theatrical arrangements to figure in the screening.

If the studied footages were edited and published to exhibit pieces of evidence to accuse the Syrian State of perpetrating the chemical attacks on East Ghouta, our discoveries incriminate the editors and actors of forged facts through a lethal manipulation of unidentified children. (Mother Agnes Mariam de la Croix and the International Support Team for Mussalaha in Syria (ISTEAMS), The Chemical Attacks in East Ghouta Used to Justify a Military Intervention in Syria)

Mahdi Darius Nazemroaya who examined the report writes:

The independent ISTEAMS study contradicts the assertions of the Obama Administration and the entire US Intelligence Community […] through simple observations of the video material that has been put forward as evidence by the United States.

The ISTEAMS report does not deny that chemical weapons were used or that innocent Syrians have been killed. What the study does is logically point out through its observations that there is empirical evidence that the sample of videos that the US Intelligence Community has analyzed and nominated as authentic footage has been stage-managed. This is an important finding, because it refutes the assertions of the representatives of the US Intelligence agencies who testified that the videos they authenticated provide evidence that a chemical weapons attack by the Syrian government took place in East Ghouda. (Mahdi Darius Nazemroaya, Look With Your Own Eyes: The Videos of the Chemical Attacks in Syria Show Tampered Scenes)

A lot of things do not add up in the footage presented by the US government.

The same little boy in red is in two different locations

At least nine of these children appear in different footage from different locations

A little boy that appears in two different videos with two different scenarios

Among a series of important findings, the ISTEAMS report notes that even though the attacks are said to have killed up to 1400 people, mostly children appear in the videos and several corpses are shown in different videos said to have been shot in various locations.

While this report seriously challenges the assertion that the Syrian government was behind the attacks, it was not covered by the Western mainstream media, toeing the imperial line and parroting Washington’s claims, which still lack evidence and credibility.

In addition, some controversy arose pertaining to allegations that the rebels were responsible for the attacks and used chemical weapons provided by Saudi intelligence. Dale Gavlak, the co-author of an article containing these allegations, now wants to dissociate herself from the article and is facing threats. Her career is in jeopardy:

The MintPress article, published on 29th August, through interviews with rebels, family members, and villagers in Eastern Ghouta, alleges that elements within the opposition were responsible for the alleged chemical weapons attack on 21st August, and that those chemical munitions had been supplied through Saudi intelligence chief, Prince Bandar bin Sultan…

Dale is under mounting pressure for writing this article by third parties. She notified MintPress editors and myself on August 30th and 31st via email and phone call, that third parties were placing immense amounts of pressure on her over the article and were threatening to end her career over it. She went on to tell us that she believes this third party was under pressure from the head of the Saudi Intelligence Prince Bandar himself, who is alleged in the article of supplying the rebels with chemical weapons.

On August 30th, Dale asked MintPress to remove her name completely from the byline because she stated that her career and reputation was at risk. She continued to say that these third parties were demanding her to disassociate herself from the article or these parties would end her career. On August 31st, I notified Dale through email that I would add a clarification that she was the writer and researcher for the article and that Yahya [Ababneh] was the reporter on the ground, but did let Gavlak know that we would not remove her name as this would violate the ethics of journalism. (Phil Greaves, Syria: Controversy surrounding MintPress Chemical Weapons Ghouta Report)

The information according to which Saudi intelligence was allegedly implicated in the Ghouta chemical attacks was mentioned by a UN official who wished to remain anonymous:

A senior United Nations official who deals directly with Syrian affairs has told Al-Akhbar that the Syrian government had no involvement in the alleged Ghouta chemical weapons attack: “Of course not, he (President Bashar al-Assad) would be committing suicide.”

When asked who he believed was responsible for the use of chemical munitions in Ghouta, the UN official, who would not permit disclosure of his identity, said:“Saudi intelligence was behind the attacks and unfortunately nobody will dare say that.” The official claims that this information was provided by rebels in Ghouta…

The UN official’s accusations mirror statements made earlier this year by another senior UN figure Carla del Ponte, who last May told Swiss TV in the aftermath of alleged CW attacks in Khan al-Asal, Sheik Maqsood and Saraqeb that there were “strong, concrete suspicions but not yet incontrovertible proof,” that rebels had carried out the attack.

Del Ponte also observed that UN inspectors had seen no evidence of the Syrian army using chemical weapons, but added that further investigation was necessary. (Sharmine Narwani and Radwan Mortada, Questions Plague UN Syria Report. Who was behind the East Ghouta Chemical Weapons Attack?)

All of the above leads us to believe that this attack was one of the most horrific crimes committed in modern history, a diabolical staged operation which consisted in killing small children, producing fake video footage and photo ops of the corpses, all of which was intended to fabricate a pretext for military intervention under a humanitarian mandate.

The mainstream media which has obfuscated these crimes bear a heavy burden of responsibility. The New York Times has smeared the findings of Mother Agnes and her team, accusing her of “defending the regime” and “playing the Christian card”. The NYT casually dismisses the evidence that the videos are fake. Read the ISTEAMS Report and then judge for yourself.

The war criminals who designed and launched this diabolical staged operation must face justice.

Procedures in the United Nations Security Council directed against the Syrian government must be suspended.

We invite our readers to consult the ISTEAM Report, as well as the following GR articles and video production: Please share these articles and the ISTEAM report!

GRTV VIDEO: How the Syrian Chemical Weapons Videos Were Staged By James Corbett, Mother Agnes Mariam, and Prof Michel Chossudovsky, September 19, 2013

هكذا فضحت الأم أغنيس الاستخبارات الأميركية

هكذا فضحت الأم أغنيس الاستخبارات الأميركية

مهدي دريوز ناظم رؤايا / عالم اجتماع و مؤلف حائز على جائزة التحليل الجيوسياسي

لحق العار بمجموعة استخبارات الولايات المتحدة بسبب إخلاص و عزيمة راهبة مسيحية أظهرت دراستها المتواضعة لمقاطع الفيديو حول الهجمات الكيماوية السورية أنها أفلام منتجة استخدمت جثثا معروضة. أولئك الذين اطلعوا على تقرير الأم أغنيس، و الفريق الدولي لدعم المصالحة في سورية، سيدركون أنه مهين لكل الاستخبارات الأميركية التي اعتمدت مقاطع فيديو مريبة لا يمكن التعويل عليها من أجل دراسة واعية و لا حتى من قبل هاو.

ما من أحد ينكر استخدام أسلحة كيماوية، غير أن حكومة الولايات المتحدة الفيدرالية و التيار الرئيسي في وسائل الإعلام في أميركا و الدول الحليفة لها مارسوا لعبة قذرة باعتبار رفض الاتهامات الموجهة للحكومة السورية حول استخدام أسلحة كيماوية موازيا لإنكار استخدام أسلحة كيماوية على الإطلاق. و عن عمد تم خلط الموضوعين لأجل تشويش الرأي العام، و السؤال هو من استخدم الأسلحة الكيماوية؟ و لكن قبل المتابعة أود الإشارة الى أن مجموعة استخبارات الولايات المتحدة شبكة ضخمة تمتلك مصادر تكنولوجية هائلة، و تمويل ضخم و قوى بشرية كبيرة. إنها تجمع كل أجهزة الاستخبارات في حكومة الولايات المتحدة ، و هي ست عشرة وكالة استخبارات. من بين تلك الوكالات واحدة تابعة لوزارة المالية، و أخرى لوزارة الخارجية الأميركية، و اثنتان لأمن الوطن، و اثنتان لوزارة العدل الأميركية، و واحدة لإدارة الطاقة الأميركية، و ثمانية للبنتاغون، و أخيرا وكالة الاستخبارات المركزية CIA المعتمدة من قبل إدارة حكومة الولايات المتحدة. و مع ذلك، لم تستطع هذه الهيئات العملاقة رؤية ما رأته الأم أغنيس مريم و تقديمه للأمم المتحدة. فعمل وكالات مجموعة استخبارات الولايات المتحدة هو فحص هذه الأفلام و المصادقة عليها، غير أنها فشلت اما في خدمة السياسة الخارجية الأميركية، أو في إظهار الحرفية أو في الاثنين معا.و عوضا عن ذلك اعتمدت على مقاطع من سورية كوسيلة لإثبات أن أسلحة كيماوية استخدمت في الغوطه الشرقية في ضواحي دمشق، و أن الحكومة السورية تتحمل مسؤولية الهجمات الوحشية.

اختارت مجموعة الاستخبارات الأميركية ثلاثة عشر مقطع فيديو استخدمتها ادارة اوباما في قضيتها ضد الحكومة السورية، و هي أفلام بحاجة الى التدقيق بعناية. ركز وزير الخارجية الأميركية جون كيري كثيرا على أفلام الفيديو خلال كلمته أمام الصحفيين في الثلاثين من آب 2013 ، و بشكل ملحوظ استخدم كلمات مثل “أعيننا” و “مشاهداتنا”، بل انه طلب أن يشاهد الجميع هذه الأفلام، و كان عليه أن يكون أكثر حذرا في كلامه و أن يقرأ دراسة الأم أغنيس. بلا شك سيوجد من يرفض حقيقة غياب جثث لأشخاص بالغين إلى جانب جثث الأطفال، ما من آباء، و خاصة أمهات، قدموا للمطالبة بأبنائهم. أين الآباء؟ في السياق الثقافي هذا أمر غريب جدا. فمن غير الممكن أن يقوم الآباء، و خاصة الأمهات، بترك أبنائهم وحدهم دون أن يهرعوا إلى أماكن جثثهم.و اذا لم يكن الآباء قد قتلوا، فأين هم؟ و إذ كان الآباء ، و خاصة الأمهات مع أبنائهم ، إذن أين جثثهم؟ في أحد الأفلام التي قيل بأنها لأجساد ميتة، أمكننا رؤية بعض الجثث محقونه بسائل غير معروف، لماذا؟ و ألقى تقرير الأم أغنيس الضوء على حقيقة عدم وجود تشييع شعبي أو إعلان عن الأطفال الميتين و هو أمر مناف للمعايير الثقافية و الدينية. في مشهد للدفن ، فقط ثمانية أشخاص دفنوا و ثلاثة منهم كانوا بلا كفن أبيض. فهل قتل أولئك الأشخاص على يد المتمردين و دفنوا دون طقوس لائقة كاشارة الى الازدراء؟ و الأكثر من ذلك، بقيت هويات الأموات مكتومة بشكل متين، و هناك الكثير مما يمكن قوله عن هذا الموضوع و يجب ألا يغيب أبدا عن الذهن.

و أشارت الأم أغنيس إلى غياب صوت سيارات الإسعاف و الى أن الشهادات استخدمت أفرادا قالوا بأنهم شموا رائحة المواد الكيماوية المستخدمة، و لكن غاز السارين عديم الرائحة ، مما يثير الشكوك حول الشهادات. حتى و ان رفض احدهم بعض النقاشات في تقرير الأم أغنيس، تبقى هناك ملاحظات لا يمكن تجاهلها و تقود المرء الى استنتاج مفاده أن المشاهد التي اختارتها مجموعة استخبارات الولايات المتحدة عمل مسرحي. بعض من الجثث وضعت أو عرضت كمشاهد يفترض أنها في أماكن أخرى، نفس الأجساد لنفس الأطفال عرضت في مواقع مختلفة.و هناك مشاهد إضافية تمنح انطباعا مغايرا تماما لمقاطع الفيديو التي اختارتها مجموعة الاستخبارات الأميركية لادراة أوباما ، أو أنها تظهر بأن الأطفال قد نقلوا من مكان الى آخر. فظاعات كثيرة وقعت في سورية ، بما فيها الهجوم الكيماوي في الغوطة الشرقية، و مع ذلك تبقى هناك أسئلة كثيرة بحاجة للإجابة. ففي الرابع من آب 2013 وقعت مذبحة في اللاذقية و لم يتم ذكرها، و لم يقم التيار الرئيسي لوسائل الإعلام في الولايات المتحدة أو الدول الحليفة بتغطية الخبر أو حتى ذكره، ببساطة لأن من غير المناسب تغيير الأجنده في سوريه. ذكرت الدراسة أن أقارب الأطفال الذين اختطفهم المتمردون المدعومون من الغرب بدأوا التعرف على هوية أقاربهم في أفلام الفيديو. انه مشهد مشؤوم ذاك الذي يقول بأنه تمت المتاجرة بأجساد هؤلاء الأطفال من أجل فتح المجال لتدخل عسكري أجنبي في سورية. و بغض النظر عن الموقف الذي يتخذه المرء من سوريه، فان المسؤولية تحتم تحليل هذه الأفلام المزعومة عن الهجوم الكيماوي و الانتباه الى الملاحظات في تقرير الأم أغنيس.

The 4th Media – ترجمة الجمل

Questions Plague UN Report on Syria

By Sharmine Narwani and Radwan Mortada


 senior United Nations official who deals directly with Syrian affairs has told Al-Akhbar that the Syrian government had no involvement in the alleged Ghouta chemical weapons attack: “Of course not, he (President Bashar al-Assad) would be committing suicide.”When asked who he believed was responsible for the use of chemical munitions in Ghouta, the UN official, who would not permit disclosure of his identity, said: “Saudi intelligence was behind the attacks and unfortunately nobody will dare say that.” The offici

al claims that this information was provided by rebels in Ghouta.A report by the UN Mission to investigate use of chemical weapons (CW) in Ghouta, Syria was released last Monday, but per its mandate, did not assign blame to either the Syrian government or opposition rebels.

Media commentators and officials from several western countries, however, have strongly suggested that the Syrian government is the likely perpetrator of CW attacks in Ghouta and other locations.

But on Sunday, veteran Mideast journalist for The Independent Robert Fisk also reported that “grave doubts are being expressed by the UN and other international organisations in Damascus that the sarin gas missiles were fired by Assad’s army.”

The UN official’s accusations mirror statements made earlier this year by another senior UN figure Carla del Ponte, who last May told Swiss TV in the aftermath of alleged CW attacks in Khan al-Asal, Sheik Maqsood and Saraqeb that there were “strong, concrete suspicions but not yet incontrovertible proof,” that rebels had carried out the attack. Del Ponte also observed that UN inspectors had seen no evidence of the Syrian army using chemical weapons, but added that further investigation was necessary.

The UN Inquiry tasked with investigating chemical weapons use in Syria hastily dismissed del Ponte’s comments by saying it had “not reached conclusive findings” as to the use of CWs by any parties.
So why then are we getting these contradictory leaks by top UN officials?

The recently released UN Report on CW use in Syria may provide some clues. While it specifically does not assign blame for the use of CWs to either side, its disclosures and exclusions very clearly favor a rebel narrative of the Ghouta attacks. And that may be prompting these leaks from insiders who have access to a broader view of events.

Startling environmental evidence

The UN investigations focus on three main areas of evidence: environmental sampling, human sampling and munitions forensics.

The most stunning example of the UN’s misrepresentation of facts inside Ghouta is displayed in its findings on environmental samples tested for traces of Sarin nerve gas.

On page 4 of the Report, the UN clearly states that environmental “samples were taken from impact sites and surrounding areas” and that “according to the reports received from the OPCW-designated laboratories, the presence of Sarin, its degradation and/or production by-products were observed in a majority of the samples.”

The UN team gathered environmental samples from two areas in Ghouta: Moadamiyah in West Ghouta, and Ein Tarma and Zamalka in East Ghouta. The Moadamiyah samples were collected on August 26 when the UN team spent a total of two hours in the area. The Ein Tarma and Zamalka samples were collected on August 28 and 29 over a total time period of five and a half hours.
The UN investigators specify those dates in Appendix 6 of the Report.

But in Appendix 7, an entirely different story emerges about the results of environmental testing in Ghouta. This section of the Report is filled with charts that do not specify the towns where environmental samples were collected – just dates, codes assigned to the samples, description of the samples and then the CW testing results from two separate laboratories.

Instead, a closer look at the charts shows a massive discrepancy in lab results from east and west Ghouta. There is not a single environmental sample in Moadamiyah that tested positive for Sarin.
This is a critical piece of information. These samples were taken from “impact sites and surrounding areas” identified by numerous parties, not just random areas in the town. Furthermore, in Moadamiyah, the environmental samples were taken five days after the reported CW attack, whereas in Ein Tarma and Zamalka – where many samples tested positive for Sarin – UN investigators collected those samples seven and eight days post-attack, when degradation of chemical agents could have been more pronounced.

Yet it is in Moadamiyah where alleged victims of a CW attack tested highest for Sarin exposure, with a positive result of 93% and 100% (the discrepancy in those numbers is due to different labs testing the same samples). In Zamalka, the results were 85% and 91%.

It is scientifically improbable that survivors would test that highly for exposure to Sarin without a single trace of environmental evidence testing positive for the chemical agent.

Hamish de Bretton Gordon — Chemicals Weapons Expert, UKI spoke with Hamish de Bretton-Gordon, former commander of the British military’s chemical defense regiment and CEO at CW specialists, SecureBio Ltd. “I think that is strange,” he admits, when told about the stark discrepancy between human and environmental test results in Moadamiyah.
“It could be significant. Nobody else has brought that point up,” says Bretton-Gordon, who has read the UN Report closely since he actually trains doctors and first-responders in Ghouta via an NGO.

“I think that it is strange that the environmental and human samples don’t match up. This could be because there have been lots of people trampling through the area and moving things. Unless the patients were brought in from other areas. There doesn’t seem another plausible explanation.”

Bretton-Gordon notes that while Sarin’s “toxicity” lasts only between 30-60 minutes when humans are directly exposed, it can remain toxic for many days on clothes (which is why medical workers wear protective gear) and lasts for months, sometimes years in the environment.

Why did the UN not highlight this very troubling result of its own investigations? The data had to be included in the Report since the two samplings – human and environmental – were core evidentiary components of the investigation. But it is buried in the small print of the Report – an inconvenient contradiction that was dismissed by the UN team. If anything, the UN blatantly claims on page 5 of its findings:

“The environmental, chemical and medical samples we have collected provide clear and compelling evidence that surface-to-surface rockets containing the nerve agent Sarin were used in Ein Tarma, Moadamiyah and Zamalka in the Ghouta area of Damascus.”

There are several logical conclusions for the lack of environmental evidence and the abundance of human evidence of Sarin exposure in Moadamiyah:

One is that there was no Sarin CW attack in Moadamiyah. There can’t have been – according to this environmental data. A second explanation is that the samples from Moadamiyah were contaminated somehow, even though the human samplings showed no sign of this. This is an unlikely explanation since the UN went to great pains, explained in depth in several sections of the Report, to ensure the sanctity of the evidence collected.

A third explanation, mentioned by Bretton-Gordon, is that patients might have been “brought in from other areas.” All the patients were pre-selected by Ghouta doctors and opposition groups for presentation to the UN teams. And if this is the only plausible explanation for the discrepancy between environmental and human test results, then it suggests that “patients” were “inserted” into Moadamiyah, possibly to create a narrative of a chemical weapons attack that never took place.

This would almost certainly imply that opposition groups were involved in staging events in Ghouta. These towns are in rebel-controlled areas that have been involved in heavy battle with the Syrian government for much of the conflict. There is no army or government presence in these Ghouta areas whatsoever.

Human Testing

The UN team’s selection of survivors in Moadamiyah and Zamalka raises even more questions. Says the Report:

“A leader of the local opposition forces who was deemed prominent in the area to be visited by the Mission, was identified and requested to take ‘custody’ of the Mission. The point of contact within the opposition was used to ensure the security and movement of the Mission, to facilitate the access to the most critical cases/witnesses to be interviewed and sampled by the Mission and to control patients and crowd in order for the Mission to focus to its main activities.”

In short, opposition groups in these entirely rebel-held areas exercised considerable influence over the UN’s movements and access during the entire seven and a half hours spent gathering evidence. The Report continues:

“A prominent local medical doctor was identified. This medical doctor was used to help in preparing for the arrival of the Mission… Concerning the patients, a sufficient number was requested to be presented to the Mission, in order for the Mission to pick a subpopulation for interviews and sampling. Typically a list of screening questions was also circulated to the opposition contacts. This included the queries to help in identification of the most relevant cases.”

To be clear, doctors and medical staff working in rebel-held areas are understood to be sympathetic to the opposition cause. Shelled almost daily by the Syrian army, you will not find pro-government staff manning hospitals in these hotly contested towns. Bretton-Gordon, who trains some of the medical staff in Ghouta, acknowledges that this bias is “one of the weaknesses” of evidence compilation in this area.

“We’ve been helping doctors on the opposition side, so they tend to tell you things they want you to hear.”

The entire population of patients to be examined by the UN team were essentially selected and delivered to the inspection team by the opposition in Ghouta. This, of course, includes the 44% of “survivors” allegedly from Moadamiyah.

In a report on Thursday, American CW expert Dan Kaszeta raised further questions. While concluding that Sarin was used in Ghouta based on “environmental and medical evidence” produced by the UN team, Kaszeta notes that testing only 36 survivors “cannot conceivably be considered a scientifically or statistically accurate sample of the population of affected victims. It would be considered scientifically unsound to draw widespread conclusions based simply on this sample.”
Kaszeta also points out that the survivors’ “exact presentation of signs and symptoms seems skewed from our conventional understanding of nerve agent exposure.” He gives as example the relative lack of Miosis – “the threshold symptom for nerve agent exposure” – in Ghouta patients, which was found in only 15% of those tested compared to 99% of survivors in the 1995 Tokyo Sarin attack.
Other patient indications that appear out of proportion to Kaszeta were those who experienced convulsions (an advanced symptom) but did not concurrently display milder ones like excess salivation, excess tearing or miosis. “That is very strange to me,” says Kaszeta.

“Generally, loss of consciousness is considered to be a very grave sign in nerve agent poisoning, happening shortly before death. How is it 78% of the patients had lost consciousness?” he asks.

“Is it possible that we are looking at exposure to multiple causes of injury? Were some of the examined victims exposed to other things in addition to Sarin? I am not stating that Sarin was not used. It clearly was. My point is that it is either not behaving as we have understood it in the past or that other factors were at work in addition to Sarin.”

Munitions “Evidence”

Although the highest rate of Sarin-exposure was found in Moadamiyah “survivors,” the UN team found no traces of Sarin on the 140mm rocket identified as the source of the alleged CW attack – or in its immediate environment.

Moving to an adjacent apartment building where the initial debris from rocket impact was found: “the Mission was told that the inhabitants of this location were also injured or killed by a ‘gas.’” There was no evidence of Sarin there either.

The Report also notes: “The sites have been well-travelled by other individuals both before and during the investigation. Fragments and other evidence have clearly been handled/moved prior to the arrival of the investigation team.”

That theme continues in both Ein Tarma and Zamalka where UN inspectors observed:

“As with other sites, the locations have been well traveled by other individuals prior to the arrival of the Mission. During the time spent at these locations, individuals arrived carrying other suspected munitions indicating that such potential evidence is being moved and possibly manipulated.”

While Sarin traces were found on munitions in the latter two locations, the UN Report cannot identify the location from which these munitions were fired. The team studied five “impact sites” in total, only two of which provide “sufficient evidence to determine the likely trajectory of the projectiles.”
These two sites are in Moadamiyah (Site 1), where an 140mm M14 artillery rocket was investigated, and in Ein Tarma (Site 4), where a “mystery” 330mm artillery rocket was identified as the source of the CW attack.

The flight path (trajectory) of these munitions provided in the UN Report may be more or less accurate, but less so is the distance they traveled, for which the UN offers no estimates whatsoever. And in a large “range” area criss-crossed by pro-government and pro-opposition areas, both sets of data are critical in determining the source of the alleged attacks.

Maps currently being disseminated by the media that claim to identify the point of origin of the projectiles, are misleading. I spoke with Eliot Higgins, whose Brown Moses blog has kept a running video inventory and analysis of munitions used in the Syrian conflict and who has worked closely with Human Rights Watch (HRW), which produced one of these maps:

“Munitions have a minimum range as well as a maximum range so it gives you a zone of where they can be fired from. Problem with the mystery rocket (in Ein Tarma) is that data doesn’t exist so it’s harder to be sure. You can show the trajectories and if they intersect, it might suggest a common point of origin. While the M14 has a range of just under 10km, the other munition is harder to figure out, there’s a lot of factors, not least the type of fuel. And it’s impossible to know the type of fuel short of finding an unfired one.”

In short, the only one of the two munitions whose range we know is the one from Moadamiyah, which has an estimated range of between 3.8 and 9.8 kilometers, was not found to have traces of Sarin, and is therefore not part of any alleged CW attack.

On the map produced by HRW – which points specifically to the Syrian army’s Republican Guard 104th Brigade base as the likely point of origin – the distance from Moadamiyah to the base is 9.5km. But since this now appears to be a munition used in conventional battle, it can’t even legitimately be used by HRW in their efforts to identify an intersecting point of origin for CWs. It could have come from the military base, but so what?

The HRW map draws another line based on the trajectory of the Ein Tarma munition (the one with Sarin traces) to this Republican Guard base (9.6km), but we have no evidence at all of the range of this rocket. Its large size, however, suggests a range beyond the 9.8km of the smaller projectile which could take it well past the military base into rebel-held territory.
HRW has very simplistically assembled a map that follows the known trajectories of both munitions and marked X at a convenient point of origin that would place blame for CW attacks on the Syrian government.

It doesn’t at all investigate any evidence that the rockets could have come from more than one point of origin, and skirts over the fact that HRW doesn’t even know the distance travelled by either missile. As Higgins says: “the best you can do with the mystery munition is draw a straight line and see where it goes.”

But western media ran with HRW’s extrapolations, without looking at the evidence. “This isn’t conclusive, given the limited data available to the UN team, but it is highly suggestive,” says the HRW report. Not really. The case for culpability will need much tighter evidence than the facile doodling on this HRW map.

CWs were used, but by whom and how?

The discrepancies in the story of the Ghouta CW attacks are vast. Casualty figures range from a more modest 300+ to the more dramatic 1,400+ figures touted by western governments. The UN investigators were not able to confirm any of these numbers – they only saw 80 survivors and tested only 36 of these. They saw none of the dead – neither in graves nor in morgues.
While media headlines tend to blame CW attacks on the Syrian government – and US Secretary of State John Kerry now flat-out states it – on August 21 there existed little motive that would explain why the army would sabotage its military gains and invite foreign intervention for crossing CW “red lines.”

If anything, the more obvious motive would be for retreating rebels to manufacture a CW false flag operation to elicit the kind of western-backed military response needed to alter the balance of force on the ground in favor of oppositionists. Which as we all know, almost happened with a US strike.
Clearly, further investigation is needed to put together all these contradictory pieces of the Ghouta puzzle. And for that you need an impartial team of investigators who have complete access to randomly sampled witnesses, patients, impact areas, their surroundings and beyond. More importantly, you need time to conduct a thorough investigation.

It should be noted here that during the UN team’s visit to Moadamiyah on August 26, unknown snipers in the rebel-held area fired at the UN Mission, further limiting their time in the area for investigation.

This UN Report raises more questions than it answers. The entire population it interviewed – witnesses, patients, doctors – share a bias toward rebels. Almost all were pre-selected by the opposition and presented to the UN team for a rushed investigation. The munitions forensics provide little evidence as to their point of origin, which is critical to determine culpability. The human and environmental testing are inconclusive in that they don’t provide enough information to help us determine what happened – and even suggest tampering and staging. Why would evidence need to be manufactured if this was a chemical weapons attack on a grand scale?

At the end of the day, the UN Report does not tell us who, how or what happened in Ghouta on August 21. As the team prepares to head into Khan al-Asal for further investigations, one hopes that they will learn from these shortcomings and provide the conclusive findings needed to assign blame for war crimes. These missions are not merely an exercise. While the UN itself may not be allowed to point a finger at either side in this conflict, they must produce water-tight forensic conclusions that help the international community reach a decisive verdict based on evidence.
And all these leaks from UN officials will dissipate the moment there is internal confidence that the job is being done properly.

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