Disappearances in Syria: The ghosts of the war

Peaceful activist Mohamed Bachir Arab has been missing since 2 November 2011.

Peaceful activist Mohamed Bachir Arab has been missing since 2 November 2011. © Private.

August 29, 2014 

The last time Rania (not her real name) spoke to her friendMohamed Bachir Arab, was on 1 November 2011. As a hard working doctor and committed political activist, Mohamed had been living in hiding for six months, trying to evade the ever present tentacles of the Syrian intelligence forces, who routinely detain peaceful activists like him.

The following day her worst fears were realized. A strap line on the evening news announced he had been arrested. None of his relatives knew where he had been taken.

Mohamed was a marked man. He had been a student leader at his university in the city of Aleppo, in north-west Syria. Over the years, he had organized a number of protests against government policies, which had landed him in trouble with the authorities. Between 2004 and 2005 he was detained for several months before being released.

But this time, his relatives and colleagues feared it was different. Since the crisis in Syria began in March 2011, the number of individuals who have been detained in secret by the state – or forcibly disappeared – has spiralled out of control.

“The Syrian authorities’ strategy to deal with dissent is brutal: speak against them once and they’ll arrest you; do it again and they will simply make you disappear,” said Philip Luther, Director for the Middle East and North Africa at Amnesty International.

Many of those lucky enough to be released, after months sometimes years in detention, bear the scars of the brutal treatment they have been subjected to.

Most of them have spoken about passing through a number of the detention centres that make up the dark maze of abuse controlled by the Syrian security forces and intelligence agencies.

“When someone is arrested and detained in secret the likelihood is that they will be tortured to extract information from them or as a form of punishment. Syria’s sickening track record means there is a high risk such abuse will result in serious damage to the disappeared person’s health or even death,” said Philip Luther.

And for those left behind, the pain of not knowing is intolerable.

As soon Mohamed’s family learned about his arrest, they began trying to find clues about where he was being held.

Initially they drew a blank. But after a while news started to filter through. A number of men released from some of the country’s most infamous detention centres tipped them off that they had seen him at various locations.

Shortly after his arrest Mohamed had been spotted in the Air Force Intelligence branch in Aleppo and later in a hospital in the same city. The man said Mohamed was suffering from head injuries, reportedly as a result of being tortured or otherwise ill-treated.

Amnesty International has spoken to several people who were held in that detention centre. One of them, who now lives outside of Syria and asked for his name not to be revealed, said that life in the centre was so bad he often wished he were dead.

He described how detainees were often severely beaten, held in overcrowded cells, and that the lack of drinking water forced some to drink from the toilet. The extreme lack of hygiene caused the spread of diarrhoea and other infectious diseases, which contributed to the death of several detainees.

According to other released detainees, Mohamed was seen at other detention centres including the al-Ameerya branch of Air Force Intelligence in Damascus and the Qaboun branch of Military Intelligence.

But news of his whereabouts has been scant. Earlier this year, another man said he had seen Mohamed at Saydnaya Military Prison, where he may have been brought before a Military Field Court – but his fate is still unknown.

“The fact that almost three years after Mohamed was taken into custody no one knows where he is paints a scandalous picture of how the Syrian authorities’ dark network of detention centres functions. Brutal security forces hold detainees in secret and move them around the country without even thinking about the enormous distress to which they are subjecting their families,” said Philip Luther.

Mohamed is one of a long list of peaceful activists, lawyers, journalists and humanitarian workers perceived as opposed to the policies of the Syrian authorities who have been detained in secret by the security forces. Many of them are still missing.

Names include: Ali Mahmoud Othman, a citizen journalist, arrested in Homs in March 2012; Juwan Abd Rahman Khaled, a Kurdish activist, detained in Damascus in September 2012; Khalil Ma’touq, a human rights lawyer, last seen at a checkpoint near Damascus in October 2012; and Nasser Saber Bondek, a poet and humanitarian activist, taken from his home in Damascus in February 2014.

The list goes on. They are the ghosts of Syria’s war.

Speaking from her new home outside of Syria, Rania says she will continue to look for Mohamed: “I haven’t had any real news of Mohamed in eight months, but we will continue to look for him. He is a very peaceful person so I don’t know why he is in prison. Things need to change in Syria.”

UN peacekeepers in Syria freed in firefight

August 30, 2014 by AFP

Thirty-two UN peacekeepers from the Philippines have been rescued from unidentified fighters who had attacked their post on the Syrian side of the Golan Heights, the United Nations has said.

But another group of peacekeepers, also from the Philippines, remained trapped by the fighters, and a gun battle was ongoing, the UN press office said on Saturday.

"All 32 Filipino personnel from this position have been extricated and are now safe," the UN said in a statement, adding that the remaining troops, at a seperate border post, were still under mortar and machine gun fire.

"The UN peacekeepers returned fire and prevented the attackers from entering the position," it said. Officials in the Philippines told Reuters news agency that there was a total of 72 peacekeepers trapped in the area.

The UN mission, known as UNDOF, has nearly 12,000 troops from six countries - Fiji, India, Ireland, Nepal, Netherlands and the Philippines - who monitor the line between the Israeli-occupied area and Syrian-held area of the Golan Heights.

Earlier on Saturday, Philippines Defence Secretary Voltaire Gazmin said that Philippine peacekeepers at one UN encampment were attacked, but those at another were “extricated”.

There were 40 Filipino troops in the encampment that came under attack, and 35 in the second, according to the Philippines military.

Al Jazeera’s Mike Hannah, reporting from West Jerusalem, said: “Round about 6am local time this morning, one of the UN bases in the disengagement zone came under fire. It’s not clear who was firing on the personnel at that particular base. However, the UN Rapid Deployment Force secured the route to this isolated base.”

"They then moved through the route reaching the peacekeepers in the base itself safely extracting them and moving them out along the secured route back into the main UN base, which is in the Israel-occupied part of the Golan Heights."

The UN said that there were no casualties.

The unidentified fighters had also seized 44 Fijian peacekeepers on Thursday. The Fijian peacekeepers were captured at their post about eight kilometres away from the Philippine troops.

Al Jazeera’s Jacky Rowland, reporting from West Jerusalem, said that there was no news on the fate of the Fijian contingent. 

"Up until now the UN have been relying on negotiations to try and get the Fijians out, but as it seems, the troops from the Philippines were released as a result of military action," said our correspondent.

She added that there was little detail available on who was involved in the fight. 

The Golan is a strategic plateau captured by Israel in the 1967 Middle East War, and Syria and Israel technically remain at war over the disputed region.

UNDOF monitors the area of separation, a narrow strip of land running about 70 kilometres from Mount Hermon on the Lebanese border to the Yarmouk River frontier with Jordan.

Rebel-held district of Syrian capital under heavy fire

Damascus, August 29, 2014 by AFP

Syrian government forces on Friday bombarded the Jubar eastern district of Damascus in a fierce offensive aimed at wresting control of the key sector back from rebels, multiple reports said.

Jubar has been in insurgent hands for a year, and is strategic because it provides a gateway to the center of the capital.

It is also opens onto the Eastern Ghouta region, a rebel stronghold in Damascus province.

"A military operation has been under way since yesterday [Thursday]… to annihilate terrorist pockets," a security source told AFP, using the regime term for rebels.

"A large number of terrorists have been killed, and their hideouts and tunnels destroyed," the source added.

The official SANA news agency said the army had killed “dozens” of rebels “including a Jordanian and a Saudi”, and had taken control of various buildings.

Residents of nearby areas reported Jubar under heavy bombardment since Thursday, with pillars of smoke rising above the area and warplanes overhead.

The Britain-based Syrian Observatory for Human Rights called the current government offensive against Jubar the heaviest since rebels seized it in summer last year.

At least 18 air raids on Thursday and 15 on Friday targeted the former middle-class district built in the 1960s, which most residents abandoned long ago.

"The regime is using artillery, warplanes and Iranian-made ground-to-ground missiles. The violence is incredible," Observatory chief Rami Abdel Rahman told AFP.

"The regime wants to take this district, chase the rebels out of Damascus and advance on Eastern Ghouta," he said, adding that fighters from Syria’s powerful Lebanese Shiite ally Hezbollah were supporting government forces.

In mid-August, the army took Mleiha some 10 kilometers southeast of Damascus. Seizing Jubar would allow a two-pronged advance on Eastern Ghouta.

In more than three years of fighting the number of deaths in the Syria conflict has topped 191,000, according to UN figures.

Despite heavy fighting between rebels and regime forces, this front has almost been relegated to the background as Islamic State jihadists battle both insurgents and President Bashar al-Assad’s military.

Besieged UN peacekeepers in Syria ready to use “deadly force”

Members of the UNDOF sit on their armored vehicles in the Israeli-annexed Golan Heights as they wait to cross into the Syrian-controlled territory, on August 28, 2014. (AFP PHOTO / JACK GUEZ)

Members of the UNDOF sit on their armored vehicles in the Israeli-annexed Golan Heights as they wait to cross into the Syrian-controlled territory, on August 28, 2014. (AFP PHOTO / JACK GUEZ)

Manila, August 29, 2014 by AFP

Seventy-five Filipino members of a UN peacekeeping force besieged by Syrian rebels on the Golan Heights are ready to use “deadly force” to defend themselves, their commander in Manila said Friday. 

Talks were underway to free a separate group of 43 peacekeepers from Fiji who have been taken hostage by anti-Assad fighters, officials said.

The United Nations Security Council “strongly condemned” the assaults against the peacekeepers, which it said were carried out by “terrorist

groups and by members of non-state armed groups.”

The Filipino peacekeepers trapped at two posts on the Syrian side of the Golan Heights were prepared to fight back rather than surrender, their commander in Manila said.

"We can use deadly force in defence of the UN facilities," Colonel Roberto Ancan told reporters.

"I [would] just like to emphasise our troops are well-armed, they are well-trained… they are well-disciplined warrior peacekeepers."

Syrian rebels, including fighters from the Al-Qaeda affiliate Al-Nusra Front, stormed a Golan Heights crossing on Wednesday, sparking an exchange of gunfire with Israeli troops.

The rebels then captured 43 Fijian members of the UN Disengagement Observer Force (UNDOF) on the Syrian side on Thursday, forcing them to surrender their weapons and taking them hostage.

Ancan said the rebels then used an English-speaking Fijian hostage to relay their demand to the Filipino peacekeepers to give up their weapons, but they refused.

Meanwhile, talks were underway to release the Fijian hostages, according to the Pacific nation’s Prime Minister Voreqe Bainimarama, who said they were believed to be safe.

"I want to assure the families of the soldiers we are doing everything possible to secure their safe return," Bainimarama said in a statement. 

"The latest information we have is that they are safe and I can say now that the negotiations for their release have already begun."

The UN Security Council demanded the “unconditional and immediate release of all the detained United Nations peacekeepers” and urged countries with influence to help win their release. 

The Philippine military said the soldiers were occupying two posts about four kilometers apart.

The UN initially said 81 Filipinos were involved in the stand-off, however Filipino commander Ancan said there were 75.

UN spokesperson Stephane Dujarric said it was unclear which group had staged the attacks.

"Some groups are self-identified as affiliated to Al-Nusra but we are not able to confirm," he said. 

However, the US State Department said Al-Nusra was definitely involved, in a statement that emphasised the group was designated by the United Nations as a terrorist organisation.

The statement demanded the “unconditional and immediate release” of the Fijians.

The UNDOF has been stationed in the buffer zone of the Golan Heights since 1974 to monitor a ceasefire between Syria and Israel.

Israel initially seized 1,200 square kilometers of the Golan Heights during the 1967 Six-Day War, then annexed it in a move never recognised by the international community.

There are currently 1,200 peacekeepers: from the Philippines, Fiji, India, Ireland, Nepal and the Netherlands.

Since the Syrian war erupted in 2011, the plateau has been tense, with a growing number of rockets and mortar rounds hitting the Israeli side, mostly stray, prompting occasional armed responses.

The Philippines, which has 331 troops serving in UNDOF, announced on Saturday that it would pull out of the peace force because of security concerns.

Filipino defence officials said then no fresh troops would be sent once the current batch of soldiers returned from duty in October.

The new crisis had prompted the Philippines to consider pulling out the troops earlier than October, Foreign Affairs spokesperson Jose said.

Ireland’s Defense Minister Simon Coveney said the objectives of the UNDOF mission needed to be examined.

"What I think needs to be called into question now is the overall objective of the mission. This was about a peacekeeping effort separating Israel and Syria and what it has now become is UN soldiers getting caught in the middle of a civil war," he told Irish radio Thursday.

Last year, the Philippines said it was considering pulling its Golan peacekeepers out after 25 of them were kidnapped but later freed by Syrian rebels in two separate incidents.

US: Al-Nusra Front detained UN peacekeepers in Golan Heights

Washington, August 29, 2014 by AFP

The United States on Thursday accused the Al-Qaeda-affiliate Al-Nusra Front of detaining 43 members of a United Nations peacekeeping force in the Golan Heights, near Syria’s border with Israel.

"The United States strongly condemns the detention of UN peacekeepers and ongoing violence targeting the UN Disengagement Observer Force (UNDOF) in the Golan Heights by non-state armed groups, including UN Security Council-designated terrorist group Al-Nusra Front," US State Department spokeswoman Jen Psaki said in a statement.

Washington demanded the “unconditional and immediate release” of the “blue helmets” after the armed groups forced the peacekeepers, from Fiji, to disarm and then took them hostage near Quneitra crossing.

Syrian rebels, including Al-Nusra Front fighters, stormed the crossing on Wednesday, sparking an exchange of gunfire with Israeli troops.

Eighty-one Filipino peacekeepers refused the rebels’ order to disarm, and they were locked in a standoff, UN and Filipino defense department officials said.

The UN Security Council also strongly condemned the abduction and called for the unconditional release of the Fijian peacekeepers.

A UN spokesman earlier said it was unclear which group had staged the attack.

UN officials noted that the peacekeepers monitoring the armistice line between Israel and Syria were detained twice last year and released safely.

Since the Syrian conflict erupted in 2011, the plateau has been tense, with a growing number of rockets and mortar rounds hitting the Israeli side, mostly stray, prompting occasional armed responses.

Why Obama Backed Off More ISIS Strikes: His Own Team Couldn’t Agree on a Syria Strategy

August 28, 2014 by Josh Rogin

After lots of bluster about striking ISIS on Syria, President Obama threw cold water on the idea, disappointing those who wanted him to broaden the war.

After a week of talk of eliminating the “cancer” of ISIS, President Obama said Thursday that he was not planning to significantly expand the war against the Islamic extremist movement anytime soon.

His remarks came after days of heated debate inside the top levels of his own national security bureaucracy about how, where, and whether to strike ISIS in Syria. But those deliberations – which included a bleak intelligence assessment of America’s potential allies in Syria — failed to produce a consensus battle plan. And so Obama, who has long been reluctant to enter into the Syrian conflict, told reporters Thursday that “we don’t have a strategy yet” for confronting ISIS on a regional level.  

Those inside the administration advocating for going after ISIS in both Iraq and Syria were sorely disappointed – and lamented their boss’s lack of urgency in rooting out a threat that only days before was being described in near-apocalyptic terms.

“Senior strategists in the U.S. government have been working hard all week to gather multiple options that the president had asked for to strike ISIS in Syria. There was a deep rooted belief among many — especially among military circles — that the ISIS threat can’t be kicked down the road, that it needs to be confronted now, and in a holistic way,” said one Obama administration official who works on the Middle East. “This press conference is going to lead to even more doubt by those that thought that this White House was ready to take meaningful action against ISIS across the board.”

Obama addressed the White House press corps Thursday afternoon just before personally chairing a meeting of his National Security Council, his top cabinet members and national security staffers. The meeting was the culmination of an intense week-long process that included series of lower level meetings and at last one Principals’ Committee that officials described as an effort to convince Obama to expand his air war against ISIS in Iraq to Syria as well.

But before the meeting even started, the president seemed to have made up his mind.

The President said that although he had ordered up options for striking ISIS in Syria, the administration’s priority was shoring up the integrity of Iraq, instead. Syria would have to wait. He also said he would send Secretary of State John Kerry to the region because “We don’t have a strategy yet,” to confront ISIS on a regional level.

To many outside the administration who have worked on Syria and the ISIS problem, Obama’s decision not to decide on a broader course of action will have negative implications for the war against ISIS. The administration raised expectations about altering its three-year policy of avoiding intervention in Syria, before Obama dashed those expectations Thursday.

“One has to wonder what sort of signal this administration is sending to ISIS by using tough rhetoric on one hand and then contravening what top officials just said,” said a former Pentagon official who served in Iraq. “It’s not just demoralizing to those who want to stop ISIS in its tracks, but ISIS is just going to act with greater impunity now if they believe they got a free pass. Every single ISIS leader was watching that.”

There were deep divisions inside the administration’s deliberations over Syria. One set of officials advocated for a campaign to decimate ISIS in both countries by striking ISIS targets across Syria. This camp pushed for hitting near Aleppo where they are advancing, and with at least some coordination with the moderate Syrian rebels.The group, which included officials from State Department, intelligence community and some parts of the military, came up with extensive targeting options for the president that included not only ISIS military assets, but their infrastructure, command and control, and their financial capabilities. Even the oil pipelines they use to export crude for cash were on the target list.

“This press conference is going to lead to even more doubt by those that thought that this White House was ready to take meaningful action against ISIS across the board.”

Another group of officials — led by White House and National Security staffers but also including some intelligence and military officials — favored a more cautious approach that spurned any cooperation with the Free Syrian Army and focused strikes inside Syria on targets near the Iraqi border. The objective: cut off ISIS supply lines to Iraq. That strategy would fall more squarely within the existing limited missions that Obama has already outlined for his war.

Inside the intelligence community, there is a dispute about whether the Free Syrian Army, which has been fighting ISIS in Syria all year with little international support, can be a reliable partner for any military mission inside Syria.

Senior U.S. intelligence officials say the official assessment from the Office of the Director of National Intelligence recommended against working with the Free Syrian Army. “The intelligence community assessment has no serious consideration to work with the Free Syrian Army to date,” a senior U.S. intelligence official said. “The folks sitting around the table today do not think we can work with them.” 

Two administration officials said there was a dissenting view, expressed by others inside the intelligence community, who said there were some vetted armed opposition groups that could be helpful partners in any military mission against ISIS in Syria. Western powers do support some FSA brigades in northern and southern Syria, but when the FSA has fought key battles against ISIS, little if any assistance reached them.

Concerns about working with the FSA in part stem from worries that elements of the opposition have in the past joined forces with Jihadist forces like al-Nusra, al Qaeda’s affiliate in Syria. Obama himself has expressed concern about this as well, telling New York Times columnist Tom Friedman earlier this month that arming the moderate Syrian opposition would have made no difference in the civil war there and the idea that moderate rebels could defeat the Assad regime was a “fantasy.”

Rep. Mike Rogers, the Republican chairman of the House Permanent Select Committee on Intelligence, told The Daily Beast, “There are some elements of the Free Syrian Army, you have to identify and find and vet these individuals, we could work with.” But Rogers warned, “It has gotten much more difficult and complicated. Three years ago we had good options, two years ago they were less good options. Today it’s become very difficult.”

The United States does have the intelligence to hit ISIS targets inside Syria, he said, that would include the command and control nodes for ISIS and its supply lines. 

“It’s a mixed bag, I think we have packages we can move out smartly on and I think we need more. It’s not complete, we don’t have a full mapping of the place. I think there are targets we could execute against. They are acting like an army, there is a military structure. When that happens you can put target packages together to have an impact,” he said.

Several top officials openly talked about U.S. military strikes in Syria in the days since ISIS beheaded American journalist James Foley in Syria and put out a video about it. On Aug. 21, Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel said ISIS was an “imminent threat” to U.S. interests and Joint Chiefs Chairman Gen. Martin Dempsey said that America had to confront ISIS in Syria.

"This is an organization that has an apocalyptic, end-of-days strategic vision that will eventually have to be defeated," Dempsey said. "Can they be defeated without addressing that part of the organization that resides in Syria? The answer is no."

The next day, Dempsey walked back his remarks, but Deputy National Security Advisor Ben Rhodes said ISIS’s killing of Foley constituted a “terrorist attack” on the United States and promised vengeance.

“If you come after Americans, we’re going to come after you, wherever you are,” Rhodes said Aug 22. “We’re actively considering what’s going to be necessary to deal with that threat, and we’re not going to be restricted by borders.”

Obama struck a markedly different tone Thursday when asked about whether he would expand the war against ISIS into Syria, where the group has the vast majority of its personnel, equipment, and resources.

“My priority at this point is to make sure that the gains that ISIL made in Iraq are rolled back,” he said, using another common acronym for ISIS. “But when we look at a broader strategy… clearly ISIL has come to represent the very worst elements in the region that we have to deal with collectively. And that’s going to be a long-term project. It’s going to require us to stabilize Syria in some fashion. And stabilizing Syria in some fashion means that we’ve got to get moderate Sunnis who are able to govern and offer, you know, a real alternative and competition to what ISIL’s been doing in some of these spaces.”

Obama said there could be a military element of a broader strategy to defeat ISIS in Syria whenever the administration comes up with such a strategy. He also pledged to continue to help aid the Syrian opposition but didn’t say that Assad should leave power and he didn’t talk at all about a political process to end the Syrian civil war.

Leaders of the Syrian opposition said Obama’s policy of stopping the war against ISIS at the increasingly irrelevant Iraq-Syria border is allowing ISIS free rein to expand its presence and atrocities all over Syria. That’s especially near Aleppo and the border with Turkey, where the FSA is fighting ISIS now.

“The whole international community should act against ISIS in Iraq and Syria at the same time. Their advance inside Syria needs to be halted and the only way to do that is to conduct airstrikes against their forces,” Hadi AlBahra, the President of the Syrian National Coalition, told The Daily Beast in an interview. “The political process is in a coma… As long as the regime continues in power, these terrorist organizations will grow in power and size, and the problem that started in Syria and crossed now into Iraq and Lebanon, will soon move across the region and eventually into Europe and the U.S.”

Syrian refugees top 3 million, half of all Syrians displaced: U.N.

Newly-arrived Syrian refugees carry their belongings as they walk at Azraq refugee camp near Al Azraq area, east of Amman, August 19, 2014. REUTERS-Muhammad Hamed
Newly-arrived Syrian refugees carry their belongings as they walk at Azraq refugee camp near Al Azraq area, east of Amman, August 19, 2014. Credit: Reuters/Muhammad Hamed

Geneva, August 29, 2014 by Stephanie Nebehay

Three million Syrian refugees will have registered in neighboring countries as of Friday, but many remain trapped by the advance of Islamist militants or are having difficulty in reaching open border crossings, the United Nations said.

Syrians desperate to leave their war-engulfed homeland are forced to pay hefty bribes at armed checkpoints proliferating along Syria’s borders, or to smugglers, the U.N. refugee agency said.

The record figure is one million refugees more than a year ago, while a further 6.5 million are displaced within Syria, meaning that “almost half of all Syrians have now been forced to abandon their homes and flee for their lives,” it said.

"The Syrian crisis has become the biggest humanitarian emergency of our era, yet the world is failing to meet the needs of refugees and the countries hosting them," Antonio Guterres, U.N. High Commissioner for Refugees, said in a statement.

Hollywood actress Angelina Jolie, who serves as UNHCR special envoy, said in a separate statement: “Three million refugees is not just another statistic. It is a searing indictment of our collective failure to end the war in Syria.”

The vast majority of Syrian refugees remain in neighboring countries, with the highest concentrations in Lebanon (1.17 million), Turkey (830,000) and Jordan (613,000), the UNHCR said.

Some 215,000 refugees are in Iraq with the rest in Egypt and other countries. Syrians have also been among migrants who have drowned in the Mediterranean trying to reach Europe, Jolie said.

In addition, the host governments estimate that hundreds of thousands more Syrians have sought sanctuary in their countries without formally registering, the agency said.

JOURNEY OUT BECOMING TOUGHER

But there are worrying signs that the journey out of Syria is becoming tougher for desperate families, it said.

Some areas of Syria are emptying out as the front lines in the conflict shift. “Recent arrivals to Jordan, for example, are running from attacks in the areas of al-Raqqa and Aleppo,” the UNHCR said, referring to northern areas of Syria controlled by Islamic State forces.

"The borders are open in Lebanon. They’re managed in Jordan and Turkey, that is in those countries feeling very legitimate security concerns, they are screening people who are coming in," UNHCR chief spokeswoman Melissa Fleming told a news briefing.

"In Iraq, the border is closed, it was closed some time ago in Anbar province and actually now it’s no longer controlled by the government of Iraq," she said.

The border in Iraq’s northern Kurdistan region has been closed also for some time except for Syrians returning to Syria, Fleming said.

"And in fact about 300 Syrians are actually returning to Syria every day. So this gives you a picture of the situation when you actually decide to return to Syria, or to flee to Syria as some Iraqis have, things must be pretty bad in Iraq."

Islamic State forces have swept through western and northern Iraq this year, causing alarm in Baghdad and drawing the first U.S. military air strikes since U.S. forces withdrew in 2011. The United States is pushing to build an international campaign against Islamic State jihadist fighters in Iraq and Syria, including partners for potential joint military action, Obama administration officials said on Thursday

Increasing numbers of Syrian families arrive in neighboring countries in a shocking state, exhausted, scared and with their savings depleted, Fleming said.

"Many have been on the run for a year or more," she said.

"There have been cases of people who have been internally displaced inside the country moving from village to village, up to as many as 20 times, before they finally made it across an international border."

A Weary Rebel Retreats From Syria to Fight Another Day

“We have to be honest, we weren’t able to finish it the way we wanted,” said Kassem Eid, a Syrian rebel who has joined the opposition in exile. CreditMichael Appleton for The New York Times

Beirut, August 29, 2014 by Anne Barnard

As he rode onto the base of the Fourth Division, the formidable Syrian Army unit that had been starving and bombarding his town near Damascus for months, Kassem Eid prepared for a moral reckoning tougher than any he had faced in three years of civil war.

For the first time, Mr. Eid, 27, an opposition activist, fighter and spokesman for the rebels besieged in the town of Moadhamiyeh, was going to meet face to face with his enemy, represented by three senior officers in the Syrian Army, one of them an aide to President Bashar al-Assad’s brother, Maher, the division commander.

“Everyone is losing,” one of the officers told him. “We cannot defeat you, and you cannot win.”

They were being honest, Mr. Eid thought, so he would be, too.

“We wanted a better country for all of us, including you,” he told the officers. “You answered with bullets.”

There was a silence. He held his breath.

The officers smiled. They would not hurt him, they said, but he had to do something for them.

Mr. Eid, who used the nom de guerre Qusai Zakarya, had helped make Moadhamiyeh an international symbol of Syrian suffering after Mr. Assad’s security forces blockaded the town in late 2012, trapping 8,000 civilians along with rebel fighters. Soldiers scrawled “starve or submit” at checkpoints. Malnutrition began killing the young and the sick.

Then came a chemical weapons attack in August 2013, unanswered by any Western military response — and the realization for Mr. Eid, who nearly died in the attack, that no one would be coming to Moadhamiyeh’s rescue.

Over the next six months, government forces alternated between shelling the town at will and dangling offers of food in exchange for concessions like handing over weapons and raising the government flag. The town was divided over how to respond, and Mr. Eid became torn. He distrusted the offers, he said, but feared missing “any single chance to help civilians.”

Truces were attempted, and some food was delivered, but never what was promised, never enough, Mr. Eid said. He complained loudly. The authorities, he said, relayed a threat: “Shut up or we’ll shut you up.”

Reluctantly, he concluded that he could do no more from the inside to help his town or his cause. So in the spring, when the Fourth Division invited him to talk, he crossed the army cordon.

A car took him to downtown Damascus, the heart of Assad territory — a 10-minute drive to another world. Mr. Eid had long declared that he would never “eat anything from the regime,” but when he arrived at the Dama Rose Hotel before the meeting, he ordered “a very big fat chicken” and four Pepsis.

When they began their protest movement against Mr. Assad’s rule in 2011, young, educated, relatively secular Syrians like Mr. Eid had acted on impulse and idealism, only to find that they had helped provoke a brutal crackdown and a war more fearsome than they had ever imagined.

Their struggle for political rights has now been eclipsed by the foreign-led extremists of the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria, who have exploited the chaos to seize control of large areas of both countries. Caught between two enemies — the government and the extremists — many of the original protesters and homegrown Syrian rebels wound up dead, imprisoned, sidelined or exiled.

Mr. Eid had now decided, a bit guiltily, to stay alive for a new phase of the struggle. He was about to join the exiles.

At the army base, he confronted the officers about the government’s brutality. Gen. Ghassan Bilal, Maher al-Assad’s aide, responded by blaming intelligence agencies for “mistakes.”

Mr. Eid urged the officers to prove their good faith by giving Moadhamiyeh self-rule and restoring services in the town. They vowed to try. What they needed from him, they said, was to praise the government’s truces. Publicly.

Mr. Eid thought it over for days. He knew many fellow rebels would consider him a traitor if he complied. One day, air force intelligence officers burst into his hotel room and beat him until Fourth Division soldiers intervened. “Good cop, bad cop,” he said.

Finally, Mr. Eid agreed: He would do as they said — for safe passage to Lebanon.

He returned to Moadhamiyeh to pack, trying out his new script on his friends. They were dismissive, figuring that he had been intimidated into peddling the government line. One of them said he felt sorry for Mr. Eid, for “getting involved with the regime.”

Mr. Eid feared that taking himself out of the fight would leave him with little to show but his own survival. But in a crowded cafe in Beirut the day after he escaped Syria, survival and a chance to reflect seemed for a moment like enough.

He blamed state ruthlessness, global indifference and opposition leaders’ selfishness for “bringing us to this point, to settle for less than we asked for.” Turning reflexively to check who might be listening, he said, “We’ve been fighting all the evil on this planet, starting from Russia” — Mr. Assad’s strongest ally — “and ending up with ourselves.”

Mr. Eid’s mood reflected that of many in Syria’s grass-roots opposition. Facing the prospect of failure and a country in ruins, they are banking the fires of their aspirations to an ember they hope will smolder for the long haul. What they will do next is entirely unclear. “I’m not giving up,” Mr. Eid insisted. “But it’s a new era.” He spoke of the French Revolution and its detours through terror and reaction before ultimate success.

“We have to be honest,” he said. “We weren’t able to finish it the way we wanted.”

Mr. Eid described his own journey with the kind of youthful megalomania that has produced many a revolutionary. He was born on Easter Sunday in 1987 in Damascus. According to family lore, he was the only Muslim and the only boy to arrive that day at a Christian hospital — a sign, a nurse told his mother, that he would do great things.

He and his family are Palestinians, who can live, study and work in Syria on an equal footing with locals in all but citizenship, a marked contrast with other Arab countries. That policy helped Mr. Assad claim to be the Palestinians’ champion — making Mr. Eid feel, he said, like “a living excuse for dictatorship” — but it also gave Palestinians a stake in the country, one that would lead many of them to adopt the uprising as their own.

When the anti-Assad demonstrations started in 2011, Mr. Eid avoided them at first, but he let protesters hide at his apartment when the shooting started. Security forces indiscriminately killed or arrested “smart and decent” people, he said, and local men were shooting back.

Mr. Eid, a wiry man who grew up reading Reader’s Digest in Arabic and English, called himself “a lover, not a fighter.” But eventually, he said, he felt compelled to join the rebels. During shelling he played “Iris,” by the Goo Goo Dolls, imagining the perfume of his girlfriend in Europe.

At dawn on Aug. 21, 2013, the chemical attack struck Moadhamiyeh. Struggling to breathe, Mr. Eid staggered outside, saw a young boy foaming at the mouth, and then passed out. A friend found Mr. Eid among dead bodies; after a shot of atropine, he awoke to an earthshaking bombardment.

Washing his face as he prepared to rush to the front line, he glimpsed his reflection. He saw eyes filled with an unfamiliar rage, he recalled, “like when Bruce Banner looks in the mirror and sees the Hulk.”

By the time he reached Beirut, though, rage had transmuted into disillusion. He swiftly set about breaking his promise to the Fourth Division, telling journalists that the government’s truces were far from peace-building compromises, that starving towns had no choice but compliance. But he also recounted the opposition’s mistakes: betting on decisive help from the Western military that never came, and underestimating Mr. Assad’s appetite for violence, and the number and tenacity of his supporters.

Now, in the cafe, he called on fellow activists to be pragmatic, conserve lives, and root out sectarianism and extremism, or risk “destroying what’s left” and “creating another dictatorship.”

“Everyone who has a small shred of decency,” he said, “must start thinking over everything that happened. There is a very, very, very high price of blood.”

A few days later, he accepted a plane ticket to Washington from the exile opposition he had once called irresponsible and clueless. On the flight, the first of his life, he watched the movie “Argo,” and he pictured himself as the Ben Affleck character, escaping from Tehran.

He spoke at universities, lobbied officials to aid the rebels and appeared before the United Nations Security Council with the American ambassador, Samantha Power, trying to shame the Council into action. At those moments, he said, he felt like Qusai, the rebel spokesman. Other times, though, he was just Kassem, lonely, his hair thinning, avoiding friends and deeper talk of dark experiences. He hoarded food out of habit.

Back in Syria, little has changed. Mr. Assad offers few concessions. Extremists run rampant. Moadhamiyeh is again under siege. And leaving cost Mr. Eid the bona fides of suffering.

Some former admirers, trapped in Syria, brand him an opportunist. He understands their anger, he said, but “the healthy and smart thing is to adjust, take responsibility, look after our revolution and not let it go wasted.”

Disappointed in President Obama, Mr. Eid said he now pins his hopes on Angelina Jolie. If he can only meet her, he is sure she will take up Syria’s cause.

“It’s America,” he says. “Where anything might happen.”

Doctors play God in Syria’s ‘town of the Armageddon’

August 28, 2014 by Zaher Sahoul

It was It was just over a year ago when I received a flood of Skype and Viber notifications from doctors in Syria, desperately begging for help from abroad as they struggled  to deal with an overwhelming influx of patients gasping for breath and collapsing at hospital doors, writes Dr. Zaher Sahloul.

The scale of the disaster in Ghouta did not truly sink in until I saw the images streaming in on YouTube and Arabic news channels. These are the images that throttle the soul— children, dead, lying in rows among hundreds, their angelic faces a chilling contrast to the monstrosity that claimed their lives. Nothing in medical school prepares you for this.

Syrian doctors had been preparing for the worst for three years, treating  victims of sniper attacks, shelling, barrel bombing, and even small scale chemical weapon attacks—with shamefully limited resources—all while living under fire since the democratic protests of 2011. The Syrian American Medical Society, my group, has been working to help them.

Ghouta’s fate seemed to have been written for it long before last year’s attack. It is a strategic area outside Damascus, then under the control of the moderate nationalist rebels. Before the crisis, it had a vibrant population of 2 million people, now depleted to about 800,000, due to relentless shelling and a suffocating siege by the regime. Local folklore says Ghouta is  the site of the Armageddon, where an army of believers face the forces of evil before Judgment Day.

The doctors all told a similar story— a large number of panicking patients, extremely distressed women and children arriving by foot or carried by motorcycles and cars, collapsing on the floors of the emergency rooms, foaming from the mouth, coughing, convulsing, and gasping for air. All had pinpoint pupils, a sign of exposure to an organophosphoric agent, or nerve gas.

Most of the people were asleep with their windows open when the first shells struck. Many died in their beds. Some awoke to witness Judgement Day. In the hours of confusion and horror while shells continued to drop and explode, many rushed to their basements, attempting to protect themselves from bombs. But sarin is heavier than air and it tends to gravitate downward—many were found dead on the stairs of the lower floors of their buildings. They didn’t stand a chance.

One doctor from Ein Turma, who runs a small rural hospital for 20 patients. told me with a trembling voice that he received about 700 patients in just a few hours. In spite of the heroic efforts by him and his volunteer medical team throughout that night, 141 of his patients died, including 66 children.

Another doctor told me that many  arrived with respiratory failure—suffocating slowly, foaming and convulsing. He could save only few by placing them on life support, with limited access to respirators. He chose to save the youngest, as they had longer lives to live.  Doctors should not be placed in a situation where they had to play God. In Syria, where medical resources are scarce, and where the international community has largely turned a blind eye,  this is happening every day.

Ghouta’s first responders weren’t spared. We had been able to get antidotes and equipment to areas where there had been chemical attacks, but not enough protective gear, which is usually only in the hands of the military.  Many doctors and nurses had symptoms of exposure after a few hours of contact with their patients.

Dr. Abdel Rahman, from East Ghouta, treated a score of patients, protecting himself only with a simple mask. He developed blurry vision, tightness in his chest and a severe headache. His eyes began tearing and his breathing became heavier. When he told his colleagues that he was unable to continue working, and that he needed help, they injected him with atropine, the only available antidote, and rushed to intubate him and place him on life support. He did not make it, joining the long list of Syrian doctors and nurses who have died or been killed on duty.

The attack was not surprising to the small circle of medical relief organisations working to address the worst humanitarian crisis in our time. But in spite of our best efforts in the months leading up to that infamous night, we had been unable to deliver the necessary protective gear to prevent exposure of medical staff to nerve agents.  Smaller scale nerve gas attacks were documented in the eight months leading up to the Ghouta massacre: at least 34  attacks with sarin had been reported by August 2013.

The first report came in late December 2012, from the Old City of Homs. In early April, our doctors reported from the field that chemical weapons were deployed in civilian areas near Aleppo, Syria’s second largest city, killing at least 40 people and injuring more than 200, mostly women and children.

Blood tests in an independent laboratory from one of the affected patients in Aleppo led to a diagnosis consistent with exposure to nerve gas. Later on, the US government confirmed that sarin gas was used in that and other attacks.

The red line was crossed, everyone thought. So what is next? The answer from Washington  was as cold as the corpses of children in Ghouta – that the red line meant  mass casualties. In the context of the Syrian conflict, where 100 to 200 people are killed daily by more conventional means, with the current death toll nearing 200,000, a mass casualty is needed to shake our numbed consciousness.

On August 22, local medical councils compiled their numbers. More than 1,300 people had been gassed to death that night in East Ghouta and another 300 in West Ghouta. About 10,000 patients were treated for exposure.  Forty percent of the victims were women and children. Those who survived had deep psychological scars. Many children lost all of their family members.

The doctors in Ghouta and the whole world waited for a meaningful reaction from the US.  But the rest is well-known. Moral outrage, threatening to strike the Syrian regime, then aborting the strike as the administration, working with Russia, proceeded to eliminate Assad’s declared chemical weapon stockpile.

The days after the aborted strike witnessed intensification of shelling and bombing of Ghouta by Assad’s forces using conventional weapons. More civilians have died since then than those who were gassed to death. The administration could have used the window of moral clarity and global outrage to pressure the Assad regime to lift the siege on Ghouta, Homs and other cities and to draw another line on bombing civilians indiscriminately, But unfortunately it was another  opportunity lost.

Fast forward one year. The humanitarian situation is much worse, and  Ghouta is still under siege, despite the UN Security Council resolution demanding that the Syrian authorities and other fighting groups  lift the siege on civilian areas. UN agencies headquartered 15 minutes away in Damascus are not allowed by the Syrian regime to deliver humanitarian goods and medical supplies to the 800,000 people in Ghouta. The survivors of the chemical massacre have  been living under this siege in starvation conditions.  Not even one memorial was erected for the innocent victims.

The last two dictators to gas their own people were Adolf Hitler and Saddam Hussein. We told ourselves “never again.”  I still remember an email by one of the local doctors who witnessed the massacre—”It looked like the Day of Judgment.” History will judge those who would have been able to prevent the massacre and who remained silent.

Syrian Refugees Surpass 3 Million, U.N. Says

Geneva, August 29, 2014 by Nick Cumming-Bruce

The number of refugees from the Syrian civil war has risen above three million, the United Nations refugee agency said Friday, calling the crisis “the biggest humanitarian emergency of our era.”

More than a million people have fled in the last 12 months alone, the refugee agency said, counting only those who registered as refugees. The total number is believed to be significantly higher. Countries surrounding Syria that have borne the brunt of the exodus estimate that several hundred thousand more Syrians have escaped across their frontiers seeking safety.

Lebanon, with a population of less than five million, has taken in more than 1.1 million Syrian refugees, while Jordan has 608,000 and Turkey 815,000, according to the agency, the Office of the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees. Tens of thousands more fled to Iraq over the past three years only to face new dangers from the onslaught of Islamic militants based in Syria.

“Almost half of all Syrians have now been forced to abandon their homes and flee for their lives,” the refugee agency said in a statement, noting that another six and a half million Syrians in the country had also been displaced in warfare between the government of President Bashar al-Assad and various rebel forces.

“The Syrian crisis has become the biggest humanitarian emergency of our era, yet the world is failing to meet the needs of refugees and the countries hosting them,” António Guterres, the high commissioner for refugees, said in a statement marking the new milestone in the conflict.

His agency’s staff members said they believed the number of refugees would have passed the three-million mark even sooner had not the border with Iraq been closed and the authorities in Turkey and Jordan, fearful for their own nations’ security, taken measures to manage the flow of Syrians.

Moreover, there are “worrying signs,” the refugee agency said, that the already perilous journey to get out of the country through fast-shifting lines of conflict was becoming harder, with fugitives forced to pay off smugglers or guards at checkpoints.

Many of those arriving were first forced to flee from village to village in Syria, said Melissa Fleming, a spokeswoman for the relief agency, pointing to the case of a Syrian woman who said she had moved 20 times before getting to Lebanon.

“These are people who are fleeing as an absolute last resort because they have nothing left; they are absolutely desperate,” Ms. Fleming added. “If they’re not affected by war, they’ve been affected by a collapsed health system or by months and months and months of being afraid.”

A growing number of arrivals came needing treatment for long-term ailments like heart disease, cancer and diabetes. Others also reported soaring costs for even the most basic needs.

With the sharp rise in refugee numbers, the refugee agency said that Syria had become the biggest operation in its 64-year history. That has imposed an acute financial strain on the agency, which has also become involved in a lengthening list of humanitarian emergencies, including civil strife in South Sudan and Central African Republic, and the renewed conflict in Iraq.

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