“Antigone of Syria” Tragedy old and new

Beirut, November 28, 2014

“I HAVEN’T smiled in two years—this is the first time,” beams a middle-aged refugee. Thirty Syrian women are standing in a large room in St Joseph University in Beirut as an energetic British/Iraqi actress directs their movements. They are rehearsing “Antigone of Syria”, an adaptation of a tragedy by Sophocles, in a workshop run by a British/Syrian production company—and none of them have acted before.

The tale of Antigone’s defiance against state repression retains a similar political relevance today to when it was written down 2,500 years ago. While the workshop is as much about empowering female refugees as it is about the production, the choice of play in the context of the Syrian conflict is striking. A tragedy of familial love, female courage, resistance against the state and blurred moral lines, it acts as a reminder that the role of the state, and of women within the state, is in momentous flux in Syria.

The tragedy tells of Antigone’s defiance of her uncle, Creon, in performing funeral rites for her brother Polynices. Polynices had attacked the city of Thebes in order to take the crown from his brother, in accordance with their agreed rotation of power. But both brothers die in battle, leaving Creon as king. According to the law of the polis (state)ordained by Creon, Polynices must be left unburied outside the city walls as a traitor, carrion for the dogs and birds. Antigone breaks the law, though, because she considers the unwritten law of the oikos (home)—that you should bury a relative’s body with the proper rites—more important. She faces being buried alive for ignoring Creon’s ruling.

Questions at the heart of “Antigone”—can kinship exist without the support and mediation of the state, and can a state exist without the family as its support—may equally be asked of Syria. Hafez Assad, father of Bashar Assad and totem of a secular Syria until his death in 2000, tried to cultivate a sense of nationalism among his subjects by emphasising the family unit. Early pictures of his mother and sons form part of the cult of Assad and helped place the family at the centre of the state.

The play’s directors focus on two themes—Antigone’s defiance of Creon and her relationship with her brothers. The tragedy of losing two brothers sadly resonates among many of the actors. Fadua Ouati has lost both sons to the war in Syria. She brought her daughter to the workshop so they could try to shake off their grief, and now describes herself as “feeling 30 years younger”.

Many of the women asked that the adaption should refrain from overt political references, despite the similarities to the situation in Syria. But ahead of the performances there are signs of a shifting mood: some women who had refused to be photographed are becoming more relaxed, confidence levels are rising, and others are becoming more eager to confront the political similarities directly. The impact stretches beyond the room. Many of these women had not left the refugee camps in Beirut for two years. Now, they are starting to explore the city that has become their home.

“Antigone” has long been used as a vehicle for political expression. Bertolt Brecht’s adaption, “Antigonemodell 1948”, written in the shadow of the Holocaust, sets the prologue in a Berlin air raid shelter and gives Creon a Hitler-like aura. In Luis Rafael Sánchez’s “La Pasión según Antígona Pérez” (1968), Creon is the dictator of a fictional Latin American nation, with Antigone a freedom fighter. And Athol Fugard’s version, “The Island”, engages with the penal system of Apartheid South Africa.

Here in Beirut the issue is not ultimately politics, however. The women learning to act in the bare room are drawn together by an environment that nurtures freedom of expression, forges bonds of trust between people of different backgrounds, and provides an opportunity for placating emotional turmoil with ancient, yet sadly resonant, words.

US-backed Syrian rebels aided by al-Qaida militants push forward on southern front

Beirut, November 28, 2014 by Bassem Mroue

Syrian rebels backed by the United States are making their biggest gains yet south of the capital Damascus, capturing a string of towns from government forces and aiming to carve out a swath of territory leading to the doorstep of President Bashar Assad’s seat of power.

The advances appear to be a rare visible success story from efforts by the U.S. and its allies to train and arm moderate rebel fighters.

The rebel forces are believed to include fighters who graduated from a nearly 2-year-old CIA training program based in Syria’s southern neighbor Jordan. The group known as the Friends of Syria, including Jordan, France the U.S. and Saudi Arabia, are backing the rebels with money and weapons, said Gen. Ibrahim Jbawi, the spokesman for the Free Syrian Army’s southern front.

The gains are a contrast to northern Syria, where U.S.-backed rebels are collapsing in the face of an assault by Islamic militants. Notably, in the south, the rebels are working together with fighters from al-Qaida’s Syria branch, whose battle-hardened militants have helped them gain the momentum against government forces. The cooperation points to the difficulty in American efforts to build up “moderate” factions while isolating extremists.

"The goal is to reach the capital … because there is no way to bring down the regime without reaching Damascus," said Ahmad al-Masalmeh, an opposition activist in Daraa.

But few are under the illusion that the offensive in the south can loosen Assad’s grip on power in the near future. The Syrian leader has benefited from the U.S.-led coalition’s war against the Islamic State group, which has had the side effect of freeing up Assad’s forces to focus on more moderate rebels elsewhere in the country. Government forces have seized several key areas around the capital.

Jbawi said the international support for the assault “is not enough to let the rebels win the battle militarily. They are backing (us) to pressure Bashar Assad’s regime to bring him to the negotiating table.”

The Islamic State group’s onslaught in Syria and Iraq has given greater urgency to international efforts to find some sort of solution for Syria’s conflict, which has killed more than 200,000 people and displaced millions. Previous attempts and two rounds of peace talks in Switzerland earlier this year failed to make any progress as each side remained convinced it could win the war militarily.

The U.N. envoy to Syria, Staffan de Mistura, has now proposed local cease-fires starting with the northern city of Aleppo as a building block for a wider solution — an idea that Assad has said is “worth studying.”

Speaking by telephone, Jbawi said 54 rebel factions consisting of 30,000 fighters are taking part in the battles in southern Syria. Activists say that Jordan is also facilitating the rebels’ push by arming some rebels and allowing them to cross freely to and from the country.

The rebel offensive gained momentum two months ago, leading to the capture of much of the Quneitra region bordering Syria’s Israeli-occupied Golan Heights, as well as large areas in the southern province of Daraa on the border with Jordan.

These included the town of Nawa and the Harra hill, a strategic hill where Syrian troops had stationed monitoring equipment because of its proximity to Israeli army positions in the Golan. The hill, one of the highest in Daraa province, also overlooks a main road that rebels use.

More recently, the fighting has been concentrated in and around the contested village of Sheikh Maskeen and the nearby Brigade 82 base, one of the main government units in the province. If the rebels capture the village and the base they will be then able to threaten the Damascus-Daraa highway, a main lifeline for government forces.

Syria denies targeting civilians, tells U.S. to criticise militants

Beirut, November 28, 2014

Syria rejected as “fabricated” U.S. accusations that its forces are targeting civilians with air strikes and said Washington would do better to criticise hardline Islamic State militants who have killed American citizens.

The U.S. State Department said on Wednesday it was “horrified” by Syrian government bombings in Raqqa province which it said had killed “dozens of civilians and demolished residential areas”.

"The Syrian Arab Army does not target civilians and will not do so," state news agency SANA quoted Information Minister Omran al-Zoubi as saying late on Thursday.

He said Washington got its information from “terrorist organisations” in Syria such as Islamic State and al Qaeda’s Nusra Front.

Tuesday’s government strikes on the northern province killed 95 civilians, according to the Britain-based Syrian Observatory for Human Rights. Raqqa is the stronghold of Islamic State, a hardline al Qaeda offshoot which has seized land in Syria and Iraq.

Both the Syrian military and U.S.-led forces are bombing Syrian targets in separate campaigns and both say they are pursuing militant groups.

"The U.S. State Department should rather have shown respect for the souls of American victims at the hands of terrorists from the Daesh (Islamic State) organisation and not directed fabricated accusations towards the Syrian state which has been facing terrorism for years," Zoubi was quoted by SANA as saying.

Three U.S. civilians - two journalists and an aid worker - have been beheaded by Islamic State.

The United States has backed anti-government rebels and wants to train and equip some to counter Islamic State. Qatar has been running a camp for rebels, sources say.

The government of President Bashar al-Assad has characterised all opponents of his rule as extremists.

"Everyone has to choose between two options - either you are with terrorism, Daesh, Nusra Front and others or you are countering terrorism," Zoubi said.

he United Nations estimates that some 200,000 people have been killed in Syria’s civil war since 2011.

Conflicting Policies on Syria and Islamic State Erode U.S. Standing in Mideast

Beirut, November 27, 2014 by Anne Barnard

American and Syrian warplanes screamed over the Syrian city of Raqqa in separate raids this week, ostensibly against the same target, the Islamic State militants in control there.

In the first raid, on Sunday, United States warplanes hit an Islamic State building, with no report of civilian casualties. On Tuesday, Syrian jets struck 10 times, killing scores of civilians, according to residents and Islamic State videos.

The back-to-back strikes, coming just days after President Bashar al-Assad of Syriadeclared that the West needed to side with him in “real and sincere” cooperation to defeat the extremist group, infuriated Syrians who oppose both Mr. Assad and the Islamic State. They see American jets sharing the skies with the Syrians but doing nothing to stop them from indiscriminately bombing rebellious neighborhoods. They conclude, increasingly, that the Obama administration is siding with Mr. Assad, that by training United States firepower solely on the Islamic State it is aiding a president whose ouster is still, at least officially, an American goal.

Their dismay reflects a broader sense on all sides that President Obama’s policies on Syria and the Islamic State remain contradictory, and the longer the fight goes on without the policies being resolved, the more damage is being done to America’s standing in the region.

More than two months after the campaign against the Islamic State plunged the United States into direct military involvement in Syria, something Mr. Obama had long avoided, the group has held its strongholds there and even expanded its reach. That has called into question basic assumptions of American strategy.

One is that the United States can defeat the Islamic State without taking sides in Syria’s civil war. Another is that it can drive the group out of Iraq while merely diminishing and containing it in Syria, pursuing different approaches on each side of a porous border that the Islamic State seeks to erase.

“The fundamental disconnects in U.S. strategy have been exposed and amplified” as Islamic State militants have advanced in central Syria in recent weeks, said Emile Hokayem, a Syria analyst at the International Institute for Strategic Studies. Like Mr. Assad’s opponents, he contends that extremists cannot be defeated without ending decades of harsh Assad family rule and empowering the disenfranchised Sunni Muslims who drive the insurgency.

Mr. Obama has sought to treat Syria as a separate problem and concentrate on Iraq, where he sees more compelling United States interests — if only the political need to salvage the legacy of American deaths there. But most analysts say the two conflicts are inextricable.

In Iraq, the group, also known as ISIS or ISIL, seems to have reached the limits of its expansion as it bumps up against areas without a Sunni Arab majority and Iraqi and Kurdish forces make some gains. But driving it out entirely is another matter, particularly if it can rely on a rear base in Syria, where Mr. Hokayem said it could still expand in majority-Sunni areas.

In eastern Syria, Islamic State fighters easily cross the Iraqi border. Mr. Assad, focused on holding Syria’s main cities in the west, is unlikely to bring the area under control soon. Last week, the Islamic State said it was setting clocks in Raqqa ahead one hour to match Iraqi time.

Inside and outside Syria, a growing refrain from Mr. Assad’s supporters and opponents alike is that American policy makes little sense — that by trying to avoid taking sides, the United States is neither having its cake nor eating it.

Supporters of Mr. Assad say that the United States should ally with him and his main backer, Iran. They note that Iran’s proxies have already worked indirectly with American-backed forces to fight ISIS in Iraq, and that in Syria, those forces appear far better organized than Mr. Obama’s putative allies, mainstream Syrian insurgents opposed to the Islamic State.

But in Syria, where well over 150,000 people have died in three years of war, such cooperation would put the United States in the awkward position of siding with a government that opponents say has killed many times more Syrians than has the Islamic State. “For years they are killing people, and they didn’t hurt him,” Amjad Hariri, 31, a Syrian refugee in a ramshackle Palestinian refugee camp in Beirut, said of Mr. Assad. “They only went after ISIS.”

Mr. Hariri, who moved his family from the southern Syrian city of Dara’a after losing three siblings in the crackdown, drew a bitter conclusion. “It gives him the privilege to kill his people, like a father killing his children.”

Many of Mr. Assad’s opponents see themselves as stranded between two violent oppressors, the government and the Islamic State. Others who “could have been peeled off,” Mr. Hokayem said, are now embracing the militants as they lose hope of United States action against Mr. Assad, who they see as “a greater threat.” Syrian government warplanes, as well as barrel bombs dropped from helicopters, kill the very fighters that Mr. Obama hopes to recruit. Many of those Syrian insurgents say that only by attacking or curbing Mr. Assad’s military can the United States win them to its side against the extremists.

But there is no guarantee that would work. Anti-Assad insurgents might well see fighting the Islamic State as a detour, especially if American pressure offered new chances to topple the president. Yet American policy is not to oust Mr. Assad precipitously, risking an extremist takeover, but to push him to a political settlement.

If the United States attacked Syrian forces it could risk killing fighters from Hezbollah, the Iran-backed Lebanese Shiite militia that has fought effectively on Mr. Assad’s side. While Hezbollah and the United States, bitter enemies over Israel, are highly unlikely to cooperate openly, the group has declared the Islamic State a mortal enemy and worked with the United States-aided Lebanese Army against extremists from Syria.

At the same time, peeling off fighters from ISIS to join relatively moderate rebel groups is difficult, particularly while an American program to train and equip insurgents is still in its infancy, said a Syrian who abandoned another rebel group for ISIS because it was better armed and financed. Later, disillusioned, he began informing on the group to Western officials.

Recently, he said, he contacted an opposition leader and said fighters were ready to leave the Islamic State. “His reply? ‘Do they have money, or are they broke?’ ” the informant recalled, asking that his name be withheld for safety and adding, “Sometimes I hate my life.”

Wissam Tarif, a Lebanese activist who aids Syrian civic groups, said that airstrikes against extremists were useless without a war of ideas.

“You kill 2,000, 5,000, 10,000 — they will recruit more and more,” he said. “The U.S. is fighting the wrong battle. It needs to fight to win the hearts of the Syrian people. They need to feel that there is someone out there who is a superpower who really cares.”

That, he said, requires a laboratory to set up civil, non-Islamist rule, perhaps in a buffer zone internationally protected from airstrikes, something the United States has resisted.

Many Syrians are stuck in the middle. Umm Firas, who lost two sons working to depose Mr. Assad, now fears losing another to army bombardments and insurgent infighting that the United States air attacks have done nothing to stop. She fears the Islamic State will soon penetrate her district on the outskirts of Damascus.

Abu Hamza, who commands a small, local insurgent group in northern Syria, waited in vain for Western help. Now, he said via Skype, he is close to despair, “living like a hobo and starving” while an Islamic State stranger runs his area. “I feel this country is no longer mine,” he said.

What if the Syria crisis were happening in the UK?

November 28, 2014 by Michael Blastland

Understanding the scale of the humanitarian crisis in Syria can be difficult. So imagine this: what if Syria were the UK?

Say you are one of the 2.5m people who live in the huge conurbation of Greater Manchester. And then you leave, all of you, exit the UK as if life depends on it. 

You’re followed by Tyne and Wear. Hard on their heels comes Merseyside, the entire population, after that Glasgow, and then about half the population of greater London.

If you are Syria at the moment, that’s a scaled equivalent of the number of refugees reported by the UN to have fled the country.

Where do you go? Many Syrians go to Lebanon, a country so small that immigration has swollen its population by getting on for 40%. This 40% growth is about 105 years-worth of the latest net migration to the UK. So you’d be welcome, of course. 

And those are just Syrian refugees to other countries. There are millions more displaced within Syria itself. 

For a UK equivalent of these, add to our earlier total: the rest of greater London, Birmingham, Belfast, every person in Cornwall, Devon, Dorset, Somerset, all Norfolk, Suffolk, plus the entire remaining population of Scotland, the entire population of Wales, and then throw in Sheffield, Bristol, Brighton, Swindon, Plymouth, Coventry, Leicester, Leeds.

The UK equivalent of Syria’s refugees and displaced would be about 30 million people, on the move.

In short, imagine many of our great cities, whole counties, whole nations, shook out, and smashed.

Economic impact

Then there’s the economy. The UK saw unemployment rise by about three percentage points during the recent recession. The effect of the Syrian civil war has been a rise of about 43 percentage points. 

So think of an unemployment rate rising so fast it would be comparable to the effect on jobs in the UK of about 14 great recessions in four years.

Next, go to school, to every school in the land, and throw out every other pupil, send them home, wherever home may be, about 5 million of them, to correspond with the roughly 50% in Syria who have been forced out of formal education.

Think of all this leaving more than half the Syrian people in what the UN calls extreme poverty, living on a dollar twenty-five a day, or less. For an impression of how life could be reduced like that to the edge of subsistence, you don’t need arithmetic: it’s you, on the toss of a coin.

Jordan Halts Free Medical Care for Syrian Refugees

November 27, 2014 by Zaman al-Wasl

In another shock to Syrian refugees in Jordan after food vouchers were halted a few weeks ago, the Jordanian government has cancelled all free treatment at the Ministry of Health’s hospitals and clinics.

Syrians were previously treated via the health insurance system; all they needed to do was show the documents from the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR).

The Jordanian Minister of Health said that decision was issued by the cabinet and had been implemented, and Syrians would be charged directly without any mediators.

The minister confirmed that the Ministry of Health still was owed JOD.34 million in unpaid charges for treating Syrians, from donors and international organizations.

UNHCR has not commented on the decision yet, despite the fact that the decision has put huge financial pressure of Syrian refugees, who cannot even afford food, and raises concerns about children, who account for more than half of all patients visiting health facilities.

Donors who lag in payments for Syrians are considered to be the most responsibile for the situation they put fragile Syrian refugees in.

Russia’s new push for Syria dialogue unlikely to be fruitful

United Nations Special Envoy for Syria Staffan de Mistura (L) and Russia's Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov attend a meeting in Moscow, October 21, 2014. REUTERS/Maxim Shemetov

United Nations Special Envoy for Syria Staffan de Mistura (L) and Russia’s Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov attend a meeting in Moscow, October 21, 2014. CREDIT: REUTERS/MAXIM SHEMETOV

Moscow/Beirut, November 26, 2014 by Gabriela Baczynska and Sylvia Westall

Fresh Russian efforts to encourage Syrian peace talks are unlikely to make progress because Moscow rejects opposition and Western calls for the swift departure of President Bashar al-Assad.

Moscow has long-supported Assad, including with arms supplies for Syria, but he has become a more important ally for Russiasince the Arab Spring protests toppled leaders in the Middle East, some of whom had close ties with Moscow.

With its influence in the Middle East weakened and relationship with the West under increasing strain over the conflict in Ukraine, Moscow is trying to restart Syria talks that collapsed in Geneva in February.

Russia says the rise of Islamic State militants, who control large swathes of land in Syria and Iraq, has made it urgent to unite all forces against them. But Western diplomats say Moscow is not offering any new solutions.

Moscow has invited Syrian Foreign Minister Walid al-Moualem to visit this week after a similar trip by a former Syrian opposition chief earlier this month. 

"It is important that constructive Syrian opposition forces restart political dialogue with official (representatives of) Damascus in the face of dangerous challenges posed by international terrorism," Russia’s Deputy Foreign Minister Mikhail Bogdanov said on Monday according to agency Interfax.

Russia says cooperating with Damascus is indispensable for fighting “terrorists” on the ground. The United States refused to cooperate with Assad in a campaign of U.S.-led strikes on Islamic State and other groups that started in September.

A Western diplomat who tracks Syria said Moscow had not offered anything substantially new. Moscow had only recently repeated a proposal that Assad stay in power for two years with a provisional government, before presidential elections in which he could stand, the diplomat said. The Syrian opposition, and its U.S. and Arab backers want Assad to step down. 

"To demand Assad’s exit makes no sense now that everyone’s main enemy is Islamic State, and a final destabilization of power in Syria can only benefit them," said Fyodor Lukyanov, a foreign policy analyst with close ties to Russian authorities.

Some Western diplomats say Moscow’s initiative may be a sign that President Vladimir Putin is concerned about reports that U.S. President Barack Obama has ordered a review of Syria policy.

A statement by the Russian Foreign Ministry announcing the Moualem visit said the two ministers would hold talks “against the background of U.S. attempts to monopolize the right to decide on the goals and methods of anti-terrorist operations.”

"There is a nervousness among Syria and its allies… They fear there is something that they cannot control so they want to take the initiative but they don’t want to give any ground," the Western diplomat who tracks Syria said.

Some diplomats said Moscow was trying to show it was not isolated by the Ukraine conflict. 

"This conflict is stalling all U.S.-Russia cooperation or talks on every possible field, including Syria," a Western diplomat in Moscow said.

"What Russia is trying to do is to show that it is relevant, that it is a player that cannot be bypassed." 

BLEAK PROSPECTS

Moscow reiterated its readiness to host Syria peace talks but it is far from clear who would represent the opposition. 

While the West has thrown its weight behind the Turkey-based National Coalition for Syrian Revolutionary and Opposition Forces, Russia says members of “a wide spectrum of social and political forces of the Syrian society” should take part. 

Moscow has not invited the coalition to take part in any talks, although Russia’s Bogdanov did meet with members in Istanbul six weeks ago and discussed restarting the political process, said Anas Abdah, a senior coalition member.

Since Geneva, increased infighting in the opposition has undermined efforts by rebels to take on government forces. The rebels Washington wants to train and equip to take on Islamic State have lost ground to hardliners.

"Things are much more complicated, the moderate Syrian opposition that used to stand together with the radicals against Assad is further split," analyst Lukyanov said. "Some prefer Assad to what is going on, other still want to fight the regime, yet others have lost any hope for any positive developments."

Moaz Alkhatib, the former head of the opposition coalition, visited Moscow for talks earlier this month.

Although he no longer leads the main opposition in exile, he is seen by diplomats as someone who could play a part in a political solution for Syria. After the meeting Alkhatib said Moscow had suggested hosting a conference to reboot talks. 

He said he attended the meeting with two former high-ranking Syrian army generals who defected earlier in the war, a former Syrian diplomat and the opposition coalition’s envoy to Doha.

"Russia did not offer anything, it just listened to us and we listened to them," Alkhatib told Reuters, saying he had repeated a call for Assad to step down.

"Syria cannot stand up again with this man," he said.

The Syrians also say it is not clear what Moscow wants to achieve from renewed peace talks, a Lebanese political source close to Damascus said.

"Moualem will head to Russia to hear what the Russians have to say and then we will get a clearer idea of it," the source said, adding that Syria did not feel pressured to compromise. "Nobody is willing to talk about Assad and his family leaving."

Moualem will be in Russia on Wednesday and Thursday and may meet Putin in the Black Sea resort of Sochi.

In Syria, desperate residents see little hope in U.N. Aleppo truce plan

Boys play with a soccer ball in the al-Klaseh neighbourhood of Aleppo in this November 8, 2014 file photo.  REUTERS/Hosam Katan/Files

Boys play with a soccer ball in the al-Klaseh neighbourhood of Aleppo in this November 8, 2014 file photo. CREDIT: REUTERS/HOSAM KATAN/FILES

Beirut/Gazientep, November 27, 2014

As winter sets in along the front lines of Aleppo, residents are desperate for the sort of relief United Nationsofficials hope a new ceasefire push will soon bring to the war-battered Syrian city. 

The plan, led by the U.N. peace envoy to Syria, Staffan de Mistura, would set up local truces in so-called “freeze zones” to stop fighting and allow aid into rebel districts. 

Residents could certainly use the help. But after nearly four years of conflict and countless failed peace plans, civilians and fighters alike are skeptical.

The initiative is risky for the disparate opposition groups and while the government has stated its interest, diplomats and analysts doubt its sincerity and say Aleppo could face the same fate as the central city of Homs, where government forces have largely regained control. 

"We cannot trust any initiative," said Safi al-Masri, a 25-year-old Aleppo resident. "We consider this initiative far from humanitarian after all the Syrian blood that’s been spilled." 

While other residents and fighters interviewed by Reuters were less categorical in their doubt, saying they would welcome any plan that relieved the city’s suffering, most questioned whether it would come to anything. 

One reason is that too much rides on the battle for Aleppo for both sides. While rebels once believed taking the city — formerly Syria’s commercial hub — would strike a death blow to President Bashar al-Assad’s government, many now fear the opposite: If Assad’s forces push rebels from the city it could devastate the rebellion in the north. 

Rebels, including some from al Qaeda’s Syrian affiliate, the Nusra Front, have clung to territory north of Aleppo, keeping lines open between the city’s rebel-held eastern districts and maintaining links to the Turkish border.

They have been able to do so, rebels say, partly because of deals that have prevented the infighting that hobbled them elsewhere, as well as incremental increases in military aid from states opposed to Assad. 

"The situation … has been stable since the fighting factions started coordinating to face the regime on this front and support was directed from the factions specifically to this front," said a 20-year-old rebel who gave his name as Abu Abbas. 

A DIRE SITUATION

In much of Aleppo, however, there is little left to save. Rebel districts have been devastated by months of government bombardment with “barrel bombs,” explosives packed with shrapnel and nails.

Residents say those attacks have eased in recent weeks, but it is unclear why, and hardly anyone expects the lull to last. 

"Now it’s winter and there are no barrel bombs, so we’ve started to work, but tomorrow when summer comes and the barrel bombs return, we’ll go back to being displaced," said Mohammad Helwani, member of a local council in Aleppo. 

De Mistura has taken a different approach to easing this type of suffering than his two predecessors, who quit in frustration after failing to bring the warring sides anywhere close to a deal. 

The envoy has said the proposed “freeze zones” are intended to deliver something tangible to Syrians.

The Syrian government has voiced guarded support for the plan. Assad said it was “worth studying” and Foreign Minister Walid al-Moualem said after meeting Russian President Vladimir Putin this week that they agreed on the need to support the initiative.

Yet many question whether either side will accept a deal. Before de Mistura’s visit to Damascus this month, diplomats said government forces could use ceasefires to force surrenders and round up local men as they have in the past. 

Noah Bonsey, senior analyst on Syria at the International Crisis Group, said rebels would be unlikely to agree any deal that was unpopular with their supporters while the government likely saw the status quo working in its favor.

"In general, the regime agrees to ceasefires to cement a military victory or to enable the movement of supplies or redeployment of forces elsewhere," he said. 

Another complicating factor in any ceasefire talks is the prominence of the Nusra Front. 

Assuming the group would agree to talk, it is blacklisted as a terrorist group by the U.N. Security Council, putting it off-limits for political negotiations, although humanitarian law allows contacts with such groups to secure goals such as a ceasefire. 

A spokeswoman for de Mistura declined to comment on who might be involved in any Aleppo ceasefire talks. “At the moment we are doing a mapping of influences on the ground in Aleppo, and that will help us in the implementation of the plan,” she said.

And while Nusra Front has fought alongside other rebels in Aleppo, the group has become suspicious of Western-backed groups since it was hit by U.S. air strikes during the campaign against Islamic State.

Iranian official slams Assad

Mohammad Ali Sobhani slammed the Assad regime. (image via DP-News.com)

Mohammad Ali Sobhani blamed the Assad regime for . (image via DP-News.com)

Beirut, November 27, 2014

An advisor in Iran’s Foreign Ministry condemned the Bashar al-Assad regime for enacting policies that lead to the internecine fighting raging in Syria, in an unusual salvo of criticism from an official in Damascus’ top regional ally.

“The Syrian crisis started with the detention of youths who went out protesting. This behavior continued until [the uprising] turned into a war,” Mohammad Ali Sobhani told Nameh News in an interview published Saturday.

“Had the government calmed people and played its role, we would not have faced the current political and sectarian [conflict] in Syria,” Iran’s former envoy to Lebanon from 1997 to 2005 added.

Sobhani’s comments come in reference to the early stages of the Syrian conflict, when in the spring of 2011 peaceful protesters would stage demonstrations, most notably on Fridays, in villages and cities across the country.

Syrian security forces violently suppressed these protests, which soon dwindled as armed opposition groups began to coalesce and fight regime troops as the uprising turned into a brutal civil war.

The Iranian diplomat painted a bleak picture of the current situation in Syria, noting the strong fault lines dividing the country.  

“Syria has become divided into fragmented areas, of which the government rules only one. The Kurds rule over a second area, ISIS the third, Al-Nusra Front the fourth, while the Free Syrian Army rules over the fifth,” Sobhani said.

“There is no Syria anymore; the country is fragmented into parts.”

Sobhani was appointed to his current position in the Iranian government following Hassan Rouhani’s accession to the presidency in August 2013.  

The diplomat’s criticism of the Syrian regime is not new. In 2012, Sobhani questioned his country’s policy towards the crisis in Syria and called for it to shift course.

"The entire world is against Syria and we are standing here defending Syria, a country accused of crimes against humanity. We are not playing this game very well," Sobhani told Khabaronline.com.

“Assad’s days are clearly numbered and Iran will lose influence and interest if it doesn’t shift course,” he added.

Iranian messaging

Sobhani’s latest statements can be interpreted as a political message by Iranian moderates aimed at the international community, according to Mustafa Fahs, a columnist for As-Sharq al-Awsat.

“It is a sign from a certain Iranian party to the [international community] that there is a debate on Assad, which can help in the coming six months to alleviate the regional and international pressure on Iran,” he told NOW.

“The Iranians want to give a message through an Iranian official who is not a decision maker, but works parallel to the decision-making process,” the commentator said, adding that “real Iranian decision makers are clear in their support for Assad.”

Fahs explained that Sobhani “comes from a more flexible [political camp in Iran] and is the advisor of Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif, who is cooperative with the international community, and is considered one of the reformists in the moderate movement.”

He added that official Iranian silence over Sobhani’s unusual criticism “is a part of Tehran’s policy in sending messages.”

“They want to say that their [support] toward Assad is serious, but it’s not final and is subject to Iran’s interests.”

Time is running out on the Free Syrian Army

Time is running out on the Free Syrian Army

A Free Syrian Army fighter fires his weapon during clashes with forces loyal to Syria’s President Bashar Al Assad in the Handarat area, north of Aleppo November. Hosam Katan / Reuters

November 10, 2014 by Taylor Luck

Several weeks into its Syrian air campaign, the US-led coalition has succeeded in disrupting weapons supplies to an armed group, bringing its offensive to a halt and pushing it to the brink of defeat. 

That group is not ISIL, nor is it the Al Qaeda-affiliate Jabhat Al Nusra, or even one of the smaller bands of Islamist militants roaming around Syria that have fallen under the coalition’s crosshairs. The real victim is the Free Syrian Army (FSA).

Since the launch of the campaign, FSA commanders say they have been forced to suspend more than 90 per cent of their operations so as not to interfere with coalition air strikes.

This has robbed the group of critical momentum in campaigns outside Damascus and in southern Syria, turning back advances and rendering nearly six months of military gains “wasted”.

FSA’s absence from the battlefield has proven to be a boon for Bashar Al Assad’s regime, which has seized the opportunity to retake several key rebel towns and large swathes of Aleppo. 

As the US and its allies have redirected their military resources and energies to combating ISIL, they have reduced Syrian rebels to an afterthought. 

Absorbed with its war against extremism, the international community has also abruptly abandoned this band of army defectors. As a result, funding for the FSA has been drying up.

The FSA leadership says they have received only 20 per cent of the $10 million (Dh36 million) aid pledged by western and Arab nations at the beginning of the year and 10 per cent of the promised light arms and ammunition.

The funding crisis forced the supreme military council in September to suspend fighters’ monthly salaries, prompting several battalions to raid villages and farms to stave off starvation.

Meanwhile, pledges by the Obama administration to “back and train moderate Syrian rebels” as the coalition’s main ground forces in its war against ISIL have turned out to be little more than vague promises and bold declarations.

The only help extended by the coalition – the training of 15,000 FSA fighters in heavy arms – has also done more harm than good. 

FSA field commanders say the sudden withdrawal of thousands of fighters from the front lines in northern Syria for training in Saudi Arabia resulted in heavy losses for rebel forces outside Aleppo and Idlib. However, the greatest blow to the FSA has perhaps been dealt by the air strikes themselves.

Jabhat Al Nusra has been a main target of coalition missile strikes, with US and Arab fighter jets destroying Al Nusra positions outside of Aleppo, Idlib and along the Syrian-Turkish border. 

By supporting the coalition and reportedly providing them with the much-needed military intelligence, the FSA has severed all ties with the better-funded Al Nusra, with which it had earlier carried out operations across the country.

This perceived act of betrayal has turned revolutionary brothers-in-arms into bitter rivals, with Al Nusra fighters routing their former allies in Idlib and northern Aleppo. 

Devoid of funds and arms, grounded by air strikes and cut off from its allies, the FSA is left with few options.

This explains why more than 400 FSA fighters have reportedly defected to Al Nusra and ISIL since the air strikes began. 

Support is growing within the supreme military council for disbanding the FSA as early as next month should the international community fail to follow through on its aid pledges. The effect of FSA’s demise will be felt beyond Syrian borders. 

By dissolving the group, the coalition will not only lose a key ally, but it will lose the sole moderate force capable of maintaining stability in Syria should the aerial campaign succeed. That would be a loss no amount of air power can compensate.