For Two Years, He Smuggled Photos Of Torture Victims Out Of Syria

July 29, 2014 by Tom Bowman

The savage and protracted conflict in Syria has left more than 170,000 dead. Now, there are allegations of torture and killing of political prisoners opposed to the regime of Syrian President Bashar Assad.

Those allegations appear to be supported by evidence: tens of thousands of photographs.

The man who says he took the pictures worked as a military police photographer for the Assad regime and defected last year.

 I’ve never seen anything like this in my life. There are pictures of children, there are pictures of the elderly, and there’s a picture of a woman. And at times I would actually see pictures of my own neighbors and some people from my own village.

- Caesar, a former Syrian military police photographer who defected last year

The photos show victims bearing the marks of beatings and torture: eyes gouged out, burn marks or deep wounds. Each corpse is accompanied by a white card with numbers written on it — in death, no names, only numbers. In some pictures there are more than a dozen bodies, naked in the dirt. Some of the dead are children, under the age of 18, starved to death.

The man who took many of these pictures wears a baseball cap and large tinted glasses during a press event at the U.S. Holocaust Memorial Museum in Washington, D.C., on Tuesday. He goes by the name Caesar to protect his identity. He also didn’t want his voice to be recorded. Caesar recalls a time when his job was normal.

"I used to take pictures of regular accidents: somebody drowned, there’s a burning building, something like that," Caesar says through his interpreter, an advocate for the Syrian opposition. "That was my regular routine."

He says there were occasional photos of dead prisoners. That number quickly grew to dozens, and then hundreds, as opposition to Assad intensified.

"I’ve never seen anything like this in my life. There are pictures of children, there are pictures of the elderly, and there’s a picture of a woman," Caesar says. "And at times I would actually see pictures of my own neighbors and some people from my own village."

He says he wanted to keep records so families would know what happened. But he never contacted anyone.

"I was terrified. I couldn’t reach out to any of them," he says.

Eventually, Caesar says his conscience couldn’t bear the work. He contacted a member of the opposition, saying he wanted to defect. He was urged to stay, and collect evidence.

Caesar says he began smuggling out thumb drives of the pictures he took with a team of photographers between the fall of 2011 and the summer of 2013: some 55,000 photographs of nearly 11,000 people, all photographed at a military facility in Damascus.

The Syrian regime says the pictures are fake. But an international team of investigators authenticated them. And now the FBI is examining the pictures, too.

Stephen Rapp is the State Department’s lead official on war crimes. He told NPR in May that he has seen hundreds of these pictures.

"This represents killing on an industrial scale, but not just killing — the most gruesome sorts of acts. It’s like the Nazis keeping track of the people that they’ve killed in the Holocaust," Rapp said. "We’re talking here about a volume of material that’s almost impossible to imagine that it could be created out of whole cloth."

Rapp said these pictures — should they be authenticated by the U.S. — could be used as a basis for war crimes charges against members of the Syrian regime.

"It may not happen immediately, but that expectation is there," he said.

The man who interpreted for Caesar is Mouaz Moustafa. He is a member of the Syrian Emergency Task Force, a nonprofit group seeking support for the moderate Syrian opposition. He hopes the pictures and Caesar’s visit to Washington will focus attention on what’s going on inside Syria.

"There needs to be pressure from all the free world and the international community. In modern history we see quite a few ‘never again’ moments," Moustafa says. "And here not only do we see a never again moment, but we see a never again moment that continues to this day while we all sit here."

So far the Obama administration has slowly been increasing military support for the Syrian opposition. But they’re still seeking congressional action to do more.

Meanwhile, Caesar is scheduled to hold private meetings this week with lawmakers and State Department officials, as well as the FBI, who want to learn more about the photos.

EU increases Syria humanitarian aid by 50 mn euros

Brussels, July 29, 2014 by AFP

The European Commission said Tuesday it would release a further 50 million euros ($67 million) in humanitarian aid for Syria as the crisis there deepens.

This brings the total amount of aid this year to 150 million euros, which the EU says is aimed at helping the most vulnerable people in a conflict that has so far cost more than 170,000 lives and displaced half the population of 23 million.

The Commission, the European Union’s executive arm, said it also approved proposals to increase assistance for neighbouring countries dealing with an “unprecedented flow of refugees.”

This extra 125 million euros for refugees is in addition to 75 million euros already made available under the EU’s European Neighbourhood Instrument.

The Syrian conflict amounts to the “world’s largest humanitarian crisis,” the Commission said in a statement, with some 9.3 million people inside the country and a further 2.8 million refugees “in need of vital assistance.”

Since the conflict began in March 2011, more than a million Syrians have taken refuge in tiny neighbouring Lebanon.

Others are in Jordan, Egypt, Turkey and Iraq, which have all struggled with the influx of arrivals.

Meanwhile, more than 120,000 Syrians have sought asylum in Europe, crossing land borders or making risky trips across the Mediterranean.

Syrian Portraits of Eid

July 29, 2014 by Lina Sergie Attar

Three years ago, three Ramadans ago, the tide of optimism rooted in the masses’ steadfast and peaceful chants for freedom and dignity, began to turn on the Syrian Revolution. In the summer of 2011, #RamadanMassacre was the first ominous hashtag of the dark times to come. Violence escalated, first slowly than sharply, until it became the everyday norm in the struggle between people and regime. Still, with hopeful, Arab-Spring-oriented eyes fixated on Tunisia, Egypt, and Libya, Syrians predicted that the Assad regime would fall by Eid, the holiday marking the end of the holy month of fasting, Ramadan. And if not by this Eid, then the next one for sure. For how long could a dictator slaughter the people? And how many could his thugs get away with killing and torturing? And how many bombs could the air force possibly drop on civilians? The end must be near.

Three years later, three Eids later, over 170,000 stolen Syrian lives later, and a country of leveled cities and scorched villages later, no one makes such naive and random predictions any longer. Instead, collective melancholy has cast a heavy shadow on this holiday. Not only has the violence escalated to unprecedented levels with over 1700 lives lost during the conflict’s deadliest week yet, but the world has turned its bored gaze away from Syria, seemingly forever this time.

Social media platforms that we once used to share news and videos about Syrian atrocities with the outside world have become our echo chambers to grieve and recollect with fellow Syrians. Over the last couple of days, I’ve been moved by Facebook statuses in Arabic — posted by Syrian friends from Syria to Turkey to America — that embody the bittersweet mood.

Each voice is heavy with nostalgia, regret, resilience, defiance, loss, and still, lined with a glimmer of hope. Each status is a miniature portrait of what Syria has become to Syrians: memories of a more innocent past infused with the hope that one Eid, not next Eid, but some Eid in our unknown future must finally bring with it sweetness without grief; happiness without ache; and life for all Syrians without bloodshed.

Good morning. A blessed Eid to all. Our fourth Eid has arrived with the tyrant still clenching his blood-soaked throne. The revolution continues and will not rest until he drinks from the same cruel cup of destiny that he served us. — Raed Faris
A box of Damascene sweets crossed the city’s checkpoints and traveled to Beirut then flew to Cairo where my mother divided the goods and shipped half to New York. The Aleppian pistachios, sesame seeds, and Damask Rose petals remind me that my country is much more than the scent of gunpowder and the sound of bombs. Its people are better than the useless politicians who debate on screens until we’ve lost the ability to understand them. My Eid exists in a box of sweets that I cannot bring myself to open — for I fear severing the umbilical cord that connects me to Damascus. I miss you. — Tamara Al-Rifai
Celebrate Eid as you please and don’t listen to those pessimists who lament, “In what sad form did our Eid return to us?” If you can bring a smile to a child’s face, then do so. The revolution was for humanity. It was for us. Yes, our hearts ache to the point of breaking, but life continues, and the revolution continues. Happy Eid to you all. May it return to you in better times, my Facebook friends. — Ghassan Yassin
Greetings to every Eid that passed by in my homeland while I’m far away from her. Greetings to the road between Aleppo and Latakia that I traveled on with my children on the day before Eid to visit our relatives with hearts filled with joy. Greetings to the road between Latakia and Homs that we drove on to visit more family on the second day of Eid. Greetings to my family and my country and every inch I walked upon on those days I didn’t realize would eventually disappear and never return. A blessed Eid to all. — Mouna Gharib
Since nothing has changed since last Eid, I’ll repeat what I said last year, perhaps God will respond to my prayers this time. “Another Eid arrives and my homeland bleeds. My country is held ransom by monsters from all sides, both local and imported. I don’t wish to lie to myself or my friends and celebrate another Eid while we drown in tragedy. Yet, I bestow a wish upon everyone — the broken souls before the ones still intact, the refugees before the ones still in their homes, the ones living without before the ones living in comfort, and the true Syrians before the ones without honor— that God willing, by next Eid our beloved country will return to us so we can rebuild it better than it was before. For no one knows an object’s worth until it is lost. A blessed Eid to you all.” — Husam Marsheh
Eid Mubarak to all my friends and to all friends of humanity around the world. On my trip inside Syria last week, I witnessed how even under the most brutal bombardment imaginable, the Syrian people continue to yearn for a normal life and a normal Eid. I watched women making sweets for the holiday. Some were widows, some had lost their sons and daughters, some had lost their homes. Yet they made sweets for the kids to enjoy on this blessed holiday. May you and your families always live with peace, dignity, and freedom. — Kenan Rahmani
Kenan Rahmani making Eid sweets with Syrian children in Aleppo. July 2014

Syria rebels advance towards key airport in Hama province

Beirut, July 29, 2014 by AFP

Syrian rebels pressed on with a fresh advance in the central province of Hama, as they bid to take out its military airport, a rebel commander and a monitor said Tuesday.

"The rebels are now nine kilometers [six miles] away from Hama military airport, which they want to put out of action," said Syrian Observatory for Human Rights director Rami Abdel Rahman.

A rebel leader in the area, who gave his name as Hassan, said Hama military airport was important because “that is where the regime makes its barrel bombs, and warplanes take off from there to carry out air strikes on [opposition-held] areas across Syria.”

Barrel bombs have killed hundreds of civilians, especially in rebel areas of the divided northern city of Aleppo, in recent months.

According to the Observatory, rebels and their Al-Qaeda ally, the Al-Nusra Front, took over a major checkpoint north of Hama city, which is firmly under regime control, on Monday night.

The takeover of the checkpoint at Tarabih comes on the back of Sunday’s capture of a weapons depot in the area.

"The regime has suffered several defeats in Hama province in recent days," said Abdel Rahman.

As they have advanced, rebels have cut off the road linking Hama city, the provincial capital, to a string of regime-controlled Christian and Alawite villages in the west of the province, he added.

According to Hassan, the regime is sending reinforcements.

"They are stepping up their troop presence here, which will limit the regime’s capabilities in other areas, such as Aleppo," said the rebel commander, who spoke to AFP via the Internet.

As for the military airport: “We are already striking it with Grad missiles,” said Hassan.

The air force has used deadly barrel bombs, which are being manufactured in Hama military airport, to strike opposition-controlled areas across Syria for many months.

In Aleppo alone, air strikes including barrel bomb attacks have since December killed hundreds of civilians including children, and forced thousands of families to flee, as the regime has unleashed a massive aerial offensive there.

Rights groups have hit out at the regime for its use of barrel bombs, which they describe as failing to discriminate between civilian and military targets.

Syria’s war has killed more than 170,000 people and forced nearly half the population to flee their homes.

In D.C., Syrian defector displays photos of mutilated bodies

July 28, 2014 by Greg Miller

A Syrian defector who smuggled out thousands of photos of mutilated corpses, showed some of those images in Washington on Monday and said they depicted prisoners who were tortured and killed by the security services of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad.

The presentation to a small group of reporters and researchers at the U.S. Holocaust Memorial Museum marked the first time that the defector, identified only as Caesar, has appeared publicly to answer questions about a trove of materials seen by human rights organizations as evidence of war crimes committed by Assad.

The photographs show as many as 11,000 victims’ bodies — many of them tagged as they lie in makeshift morgues — and were turned over to United Nations and FBI investigators after the defector fled Syria last year. The photos have been described as authentic by U.S. officials.

The defector said that he and other government employees took the images while working in jobs that required them to photograph the dead for the Assad government’s records.

The photographs presented Monday showed dozens of badly mutilated and emaciated corpses, many of them disfigured by beatings, missing chunks of skin from lashings, or bearing rashes that experts said may reflect exposure to toxic substances.

Despite their potential value as evidence, the defector said that Assad officials required that the photos be taken as proof of the deaths and as proof that the orders of leaders of the government’s security agencies were being carried out.

The defector spoke through a translator.

The existence of the photos has been previously reported. They were viewed by U.N. Security Council officials in April as part of an unsuccessful effort by France to refer Syria to the International Criminal Court.

The defector has held a series of meetings with U.S. government and congressional officials in Washington this week, according to Mouaz Moustafa, executive director of the Syrian Emergency Task Force, who presided over a question-and-answer session at the museum on Monday.

Michael Chertoff, the former secretary of the Department of Homeland Security and a member of the museum’s governing council, attended and introduced the defector.

Wearing sunglasses and a San Francisco Giants’ baseball cap pulled low over his face, the defector spoke on the condition that he not be photographed or recorded. He said that his job as a photographer for the nation’s military morphed during the Syrian civil war into an assignment recording images of the bodies being brought to Hospital 601 in Damascus.

“My conscience would not allow me to continue taking pictures and not be able to leak them out or share them,” Caesar said. “It was horrendous.” He said he began leaking the images to Syrian opposition groups in 2011.

At first, he said there were only five or 10 a day, but the numbers swelled to 50 or 60 as the conflict grew. He said the photos were taken between 2011 and 2013. Those shown Monday as part of a video presentation showed the corpses of men whose eyes had been gouged out, and dozens of bodies starved to skin and bones.

All were held at Syrian prisons, the defector said, and many were marked with number sequences on their torsos, or on tags attached to their heads or bodies. In some cases, families were given death certificates saying they had died of heart attacks or other natural causes. The Syrian government has rejected the claims.

The photos have not been released publicly. But Moustafa on Monday said he would seek to work with the Holocaust Museum to post some online.

Bashar al-Assad and the Devil’s Gambit

Thierry Ehrmann/Flickr

July 16, 2014 by Dominic Tierney

A year ago, Bashar al-Assad, the president of Syria, was reeling from an entrenched insurgency and facing the prospect of war against the United States and its allies. After Syrian government forces used chemical weapons to kill more than 1,000 civilians in August 2013, Barack Obama threatened air strikes against Damascus—before a last-minute deal to destroy Syria’s chemical stockpiles averted a conflict.

Today, Assad is almost an unofficial ally of the United States in the fight against the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria (ISIS), a Sunni extremist force that has sweptfrom Syria into neighboring Iraq. The Syrian leader’s tale of political survival offers a brutal lesson about how dictators can use violence to radicalize their opposition and cement their rule.

Embattled tyrants like Assad can’t usually win international allies with a charm offensive. Instead, their best hope for gaining foreign support is to rely on that old adage: the enemy of my enemy is my friend. As Winston Churchill said during World War II: “If Hitler invaded hell, I would make at least a favorable reference to the devil in the House of Commons.”

Dictators can play the devil’s gambit: winning international sympathy by deliberately radicalizing regime opponents, so that these adversaries look like latter-day Hitlers. This approach is cynical, bloody, and potentially effective. “It’s obvious that Bashar al-Assad’s strategy is to present us with a choice of ISIS or him so that eventually we will choose him,” Senator John McCain has observed.

How does the devil’s gambit work? The goal is to make the opposition appear even more threatening than the regime. If you’re a despot like Assad, this is no easy feat. For one thing, Damascus has an appalling human-rights record, and a list of allies that reads like the Axis of Evil, 2014 edition, including Iran and Hezbollah.

Furthermore, back in 2011, the original Syrian resistance won many international friends. The opposition included a large number of moderates who sought democratic change using peaceful mass protests and strikes. These tactics of non-violent resistance can successfully undermine a dictatorship, by boosting mass participation in the resistance, peeling away regime supporters, and winning foreign backing.

The devil’s gambit requires transforming the opposition into something far more radical and dangerous. If non-violent resistance is effective at toppling tyrants, then dictators can incite rebels into using extreme tactics like terrorism. Autocrats want to turn today’s Gandhis into tomorrow’s jihadists. Here, dictators can benefit from the inherently vicious nature of civil war. A cycle of atrocities and revenge is like a centrifugal force that pushes all sides to the extreme. The center cannot hold, as the catalyst of violence hardens attitudes, marginalizes moderates, and forges the opposition into a more militant entity.

In Syria, three years of scorched-earth warfare, which has left 170,000 dead and ruined much of the country, have removed the restraints on war. Over time, the balance of power within the opposition has shifted from relatively moderate groups like the Free Syrian Army to extremists like ISIS.

Dictators playing the devil’s gambit can further this process of radicalization by targeting moderate groups for destruction, or provoking them into acts of terror. Assad casts himself as the nation’s guardian against Sunni jihadists, but he has deliberately encouraged the rise of extremism. The Syrian president’s forces have allowed ISIS to consolidate a rump caliphate in northeastern Syria as a visible warning about what the alternative to his rule looks like. Indeed, Assad’s troops rarely battle ISIS, saving their fire for more moderate enemies. The regime has even reportedly released jihadists from jail to foment extremism within the opposition, and bought oil from ISIS, effectively bolstering its influence.

For Assad, ISIS is priceless. The Sunni extremist boogeyman holds the key to his political survival. As ISIS continues its assault in Iraq, employing tactics that include beheadings, crucifixions, and systematic torture, Assad has cemented his alliance with Baghdad, as well as with Iran, Hezbollah, and Russia.

Even Assad’s enemies are rethinking their strategy. European countries worry about the thousands of Europeans who have traveled to Syria to fight Assad—and their potential return as violent militants. Meanwhile, the United States has dispatched hundreds of advisors to join the battle against ISIS in Iraq. Members of the Obama administration are backing away from the goal of toppling Assad. “Anyone calling for regime change in Syria,” said one official, “is frankly blind to the past decade; and the collapse of eastern Syria, and growth of Jihadistan, leading to 30 to 50 suicide attacks a month in Iraq.”

The devil’s gambit is a chancy maneuver, since the resulting radicals could grow too powerful to control. For a dictator, the sweet spot is an extremist force that’s strong enough to inspire fear abroad, but not capable enough to topple the regime—which is roughly where ISIS is right now. If the militants become too potent, Assad will probably turn on them with a vengeance.

The devil’s gambit is risky, yes—but a calculated risk. A dictator looking down the barrel of regime change may be inclined to gamble. Perhaps Muammar Qaddafi and Hosni Mubarak lost power because they failed to play the game as ruthlessly or effectively as Assad has.

What can Washington do? The devil’s gambit works precisely because it presents the West with a stark alternative: a greater evil or a lesser evil. Before we cast our lot with Assad, however, we need to think not just about today’s choice, but also about the long-term outlook. Is Damascus the root source of the problem? Is a sustainable solution possible if Assad remains in power? Is there a third alternative?

More than anything, the devil’s gambit provides another argument for early action to prevent civil wars from breaking out or escalating. Otherwise, we may find that the enemy of our enemy is a fiend.

Syria conflict: Syrian and Turkish Kurds unite to battle Isis threat – ‘We shoot them like sheep, but next day double the number return’

Syrian Kurds are struggling to fight off Islamist militants, flushed with their Iraqi success – but Turkish Kurds, veterans of guerrilla conflict, are joining forces with them. Isabel Hunter reports from Suruc on the Turkish-Syrian border

July 28, 2014 by Isabel Hunter

On the border between, Turkey and Syria, Muhammed Ahmad, a 23-year-old Syrian Kurd is waiting to return to the fight against Isis.

He described Isis as formidable opponents. “It’s like they’re on drugs,” he said, “they charge at you in groups of 300 and, even though we shoot them like sheep, you know the next day there will be double.”

But despite their dedication, Isis jihadists are human. He pulls out his phone and scrolls through grotesque pictures of Isis fighters he and his comrades have killed. Their faces are sunken, bloody and in some cases pummelled beyond recognition – a ritual performed by their fellow fighters, according to Mr Ahmad, to stop the identification of the dead.

Following its success in Iraq, Isis has directed its forces towards Kobani, a Kurdish town close to the Turkish border and the Kurds are struggling to hold them off.

At night, the battle for the Syrian Kurdish stronghold of Kobani, which is under attack from three sides, can be heard in Turkey. Rockets screech and there are regular explosions and the popping of rifle fire.

Last week, the Turkish Kurdish Workers’ Party, (PKK) said 1,000 fighters had gone to help their brethren fight Isis.

“We announced the number of fighters to make people pay attention to what is happening in Kobani,” says Ismail Kaplan, a local Kurdish leader. “Since Isis came back from Mosul with US weapons, they are much more powerful so we need to give the Kurds a hand – if Isis becomes stronger, we will attack to help the Kurds in Syria.”

Gaining Kobani, known as Ain al-Arab in Arabic, would be a huge strategic victory for Isis, allowing it to control a large section of the Turkish border.

At the border, the Kurds have established, a camp-cum-lookout post complete with speakers and a stage adorned with flags for evening entertainment. When the Kurds are not peering through binoculars across the border they sing patriotic songs and raise morale. Their purpose is to alert Syrian Kurdish forces of Isis activity below and to protect Turkish Kurds from the invasion they fear could be imminent. The line between Syria and Turkey is blurring as the Kurds rise together to defend the Syrian Kurds’ autonomous region which was declared for the first time a year ago.

At the camp, Sadet Kooran, 49, described how her two brothers died fighting the Turkish army and she was herself imprisoned for five years in the 1980s. Her 27-year old daughter is now a PKK fighter.  “I haven’t heard from her for five years – but she is the daughter of our people and she is fighting for our rights,” she said. Kooran doesn’t know if her daughter is fighting in Syria or is at a PKK base elsewhere.

In Suruc, Ismail Kaplan said the PKK is ready to fight Isis if it continues onto Turkish soil.

“We have lots of weapons hidden in the mountains – with one phone call, the PKK guerrillas will be there in minutes to defend the people,” he said.

There are no Turkish border guards near the camp.  Just a couple of miles along the border Turkish soldiers are inspecting a section of the barbed-wire fence which divides Turkey and Syria.

Turkish Kurds have begun conscripting everyone aged 18 to 30 to fight Isis across the border. By the border, a group of 10 youths sitting under the shade of the tree in the fierce summer sun was waiting for the border to open to cross the train tracks to Kobani and pick up their weapons once again.

But the traffic is not all one way. Not more than a mile from the official Murşitpinar crossing on the Turkish side, Lami Cicek is mourning the death of his 18-year-old brother at his home. Muzlem was fighting for the Kurds for nine months until he was hit by a bullet just below his left armpit last week. He later died. “He was so bright and educated – a musician! He used to play for the fighters,” Mr Cicek said, “But as soon as he signed up, we knew he would die there.”

From the hills overlooking the Euphrates a white truck has been spotted abandoned in a field below – an Isis vehicle, for sure we’re told, as binoculars are handed around.

At the same time, young women arrive in a fleet of minibuses, ululating defiantly as they join their comrades at the border camp.

Muhammad Ahmad is motivated by more than nationalistic feeling. His father has been detained by Isis and his uncle was killed by its fighters – beheaded for answering back to an Isis soldier who reprimanded his female companions for not being properly dressed.

He stops at one of the pictures of dead men, a picture of a young man with a straggly beard staring coldly at the camera.

“Him”, he says. “He was the one that killed my uncle – we saw the videos online.”

The Syrian Opposition’s Dreams Of Anti-Aircraft Weapons Might Have Ended With Flight MH17

Rebel fighters in Aleppo Hosam Katan / Reuters

Istanbul, July 29, 2014 by Mike Giglio

The day after Malaysian Airlines Flight 17 was shot down in Ukraine, with news of the tragedy still sinking in, a Syrian TV host known for his opposition sympathies posted a message on Facebook.

“After the Malaysian plane was downed by a surface-to-air missile in Ukraine,” wrote Faisal al-Qassem, who has a talk show on Al-Jazeera, “the Syrian opposition’s dream of getting anti-aircraft weapons is like the devil’s dream of going to paradise.”

The message captured what many Syrian rebels and activists must have been thinking. They had been pleading for years for their international allies to provide them with surface-to-air missiles, to combat the devastating air power of the Bashar al-Assad regime. But the Obama administration had refused to allow it — worried that the weapons could fall into the wrong hands, or that rebels could accidentally cause a disaster like the one in Ukraine. Now the prospect of getting them seemed more distant than ever as a worst-case scenario played out for a different set of rebels and their Russian backers 800 miles away.

As one rebel commander in northern Syria put it, after first expressing his sympathy for the victims of MH17: “Maybe [the U.S.] will take this as even more of a reason not to do it.”

The commander — a defected lieutenant colonel who goes by the nickname Abu Ahmed and leads a battalion called Ahrar al-Sahel — had a somber outlook on the possibility of international support. “If the international community wanted to give us anti-aircraft weapons they would have done it long ago, before so many thousands were killed,” he said.

Moderate rebels, in particular, largely share this attitude, weary of waiting for meaningful aid in the form of anti-aircraft and other heavy weapons as they fade from their once-prominent place in the rebellion, rolled back by the regime as well as extremist rivals. Yet recent weeks had seen rare glimpses of hope. Following the surge of the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria, an al-Qaeda offshoot, in Iraq last month, the Obama administration announced plans for a $500-million program to train and arm moderate rebels, which would be its most intensive effort to help them to date.

While the plan made no mention of anti-aircraft weapons, it suggested a possible thaw in the administration’s icy attitude on military assistance to the rebels — and some of the rebellion’s backers in Washington were optimistic that anti-aircraft weapons might be coming by other means. Before the MH17 crash, according to one congressional staffer briefed on the deliberations, the U.S. had been considering proposals to allow its allies to provide the rebels with modified versions of shoulder-fired surface-to-air missiles known as man-portable air defense systems, or Manpads.

But now the same staffer, who spoke on condition of anonymity, had serious doubts, even though it was a farther-reaching and more powerful kind of surface-to-air missile that had brought MH17 down: “I just think that this administration has been so hesitant anyway — and whether the weapons systems are comparable or not, or obviously even the situation is not comparable — I think in their minds it’s all one in the same, and I think this could potentially change the calculus.”

The nightmare in Ukraine, in fact, seems to have reinforced the Obama administration’s confidence in its cautious approach to the rebels in Syria — particularly when it comes to anti-aircraft weapons.

“We have always expressed concern about the proliferation risk associated with anti-aircraft systems,” Bernadette Meehan, a spokeswoman for the White House National Security Council, told BuzzFeed. “For instance, in Syria, there have been calls to provide Manpads, but we’ve always been concerned about the danger that those types of weapons could fall into the wrong hands or pose a risk to civil aviation.”

In backing the rebels in eastern Ukraine, Russian President Vladimir Putin has pursued a course much the opposite of U.S. Syria policy. Russia has pumped heavy weapons into the self-styled separatist republics in the regions of Donetsk and Luhansk, including Manpads, and threatened to intervene militarily on their behalf. A number of Russian citizens with ties to the country’s intelligence services are helping to lead the rebellion on the ground. The U.S. has also accused Russia of firing rockets across the border at Ukrainian forces — and of providing rebels with the anti-aircraft weapon, a vehicle-mounted missile system known as a Buk, that they likely used to down MH17, mistakenly believing it to be a Ukrainian military plane.

Now Putin is facing the backlash — he has become more of an international pariah than ever amid the furor over the attack, and the U.S. and European countries agreed to their most severe round of sanctions yet on Monday. “[MH17] points to the risk of arming proxies,” said a senior U.S. administration official, speaking on condition of anonymity.

Oubai Shahbandar, a senior advisor to the Syrian opposition based in Washington, DC, who has been lobbying to see moderate rebels provided with Manpads and other heavy weapons, was apoplectic at the idea that what he called Russian “adventurism” in Ukraine might hurt rebel efforts to get arms in Syria. “It’s apples to oranges. There is no comparison,” he said, noting that Russia is a key backer of the Assad regime, which has bombed cities using Russian-made jets. “Anyone who tries to make that comparison is living in a parallel universe.”

Manpads could not have reached the altitude that MH17 was flying when it was hit — or that commercial airliners fly generally. But when asked if he worried that the U.S. might be more hesitant to allow rebels to get Manpads in the face of the MH17 disaster, Shahbandar replied: “Absolutely — absolutely, absolutely and absolutely.”

He added that rebels were willing to address U.S. concerns about proliferation by undergoing training and vetting before receiving Manpads. And he suggested that the weapons could be equipped with GPS tracking and other safeguards, such as fingerprint scanners. “The difference is that the Russians are actively promoting proliferation of advanced missile systems, while the Syrian rebels have made it clear to the United States and its allies that that they are willing to work with them to guard against proliferation,” he said.

Yet serious doubts about providing Syrian rebels with Manpads remain — and may have only increased. “There are ways in which the United States itself and some of its allies can keep tabs on some of these [heavy] weapons, but it’s not fool-proof,” said Steven Simon, a fellow at the Middle East Institute and former senior official on Obama administration’s National Security Council. “So the idea of having a lot of confidence in what happens to these weapons once you hand them over is just fictional. It’s difficult to have that kind of control. And this goes all the more so for Manpads.”

Simon added: “Do you want the Manpad that you supplied to the opposition to be the one that shot down the Malaysian airplane?”

Assad supporters aghast at losses to ISIS

Loyalists have demanded more information than the formal, televised army statements that speak only of victories. Youtube

Beirut, July 28, 2014 by Marlon Dick

A series of recent setbacks for the Syrian regime on the battlefield – most spectacularly at the hands of ISIS – have sparked outrage in the ranks of loyalists.

Some of the most ardent supporters of the regime have been aghast at the news that hundreds of regime soldiers and paramilitaries were killed in battles with ISISin three different provinces over the last 10 days: the Shaar gas field in rural Homs, the Division 17 military base outside the city of Raqqa, and the Regiment 121 post in rural Hassakeh.

The regime had been stepping up its aerial attacks on ISIS positions in Raqqa before the recent confrontations on the ground, but anti-regime activists who strongly object to the presence of ISIS in the Syrian uprising complained that the strikes did more damage to civilians than to the hard-line Al-Qaeda splinter group.

The Syrian Observatory for Human Rights, an anti-regime monitoring group based in Britain, estimates that 1,100 regime troops and paramilitaries have been killed since President Bashar Assad’s inauguration speech on July 17, when he confidently declared “victory” against the terrorists he said were bent on toppling his regime.

In the wake of the speech, half a dozen battlefronts heated up around the country, with mainstream and Islamist rebels achieving small but significant victories in provinces such as Deraa and Hama, and with ISIS more noticeably in the central and northern areas.

For Aram Nerguizian, a senior fellow with the CSIS think tank in Washington, the gains by ISIS against regime positions represents a process that is likely to continue.

“The story will play out over quite a bit of time, irrespective of immediate regime losses,” Nerguizian told The Daily Star. “ ISIS is shifting some of its attention to Assad-controlled territory at a time when regime forces are prioritizing Aleppo, Iraqi fighters have returned home [to fight ISIS], and Hezbollah is focused on Qalamoun and pacifying the anti-Lebanon mountain chain,” he said.

It is of little comfort to loyalists, who complained that state media remained silent about what was taking place, as they anxiously sought news about the fate of hundreds of soldiers who went missing during the fighting in Raqqa. Social media platforms quickly circulated photos of ISIS’ grim retribution against military personnel in Raqqa, in the form of the severed heads of half a dozen soldiers, put on public display.

Pro-regime Facebook pages were also busy publishing lists of names of the soldiers and officers who fled the post and survived ambush by ISIS militants, finally making it to neighboring Hassakeh province.

Although the Shaar gas field area was retaken over the weekend, and dozens of ISIS militants reportedly killed, it did little to assuage the anger.

“There was only a few days between the disaster at Division 17 and the loss of the Shaar gas field, but it was enough to reveal the decrepit state of military, security and media leaders,” one supporter of the regime wrote, expressing the general mood.

“Where do the senior military leaders stand on what is happening?” she asked. “Division 17 was besieged for two years, and ISIS announced it would attack before the Eid al-Fitr [holiday]. Where was the support, and the planes? Or is your role limited only to stealing and looting?”

Joshua Landis, the Syria Comment blogger and the head of the Center for Middle East Studies at The University of Oklahoma, said the regime’s strategy of dealing with ISIS, which last month spearheaded a similar, sudden offensive in Iraq, appeared to be “backfiring.”

“The Assad regime has given ISIS a pass for many months, in part because Assad has hoped that ISIS’ growth would spook the West,” Landis told The Daily Star. “But this cynical strategy seems to be backfiring today. ISIS is spooking Syrians even more than it is Westerners, and with good reason. ISIS is slashing and burning its way through a number of regime strongholds, and Syrians fear that their government has underestimated ISIS,” Landis said.

According to an anti-regime media activist not aligned with the political opposition, the rage being expressed against the regime for its military performance has been unprecedented.

“It’s the first time that they have been cursing the president by name, and holding him responsible,” the activist, who requested anonymity, said. “They’ve never been in such a state before.”

Anti-regime activist groups, meanwhile, have relayed the news of the regime losses in Raqqa and Hassakeh, but in many cases the news was reported in matter-of-fact fashion, empty of any celebratory comments.

Syria’s Assad joins prayers to mark end of Ramadan

Damascus, July 28, 2014 by AFP

Syrian President Bashar al-Assad was given a warm reception by the faithful on Monday when he joined in Eid al-Fitr prayers in Damascus, to mark the end of the fasting month of Ramadan.

Assad took part in prayers at the Al-Kheir mosque, in Muhajarin, near his home in northwest Damascus.

State television showed Assad being greeted by Syrian Grand Mufti Ahmed Badreddin Hassoun and, at the end of prayers, being surrounded by scores of well-wishers keen to shake his hand.

During the morning, projectiles fired by rebels slammed into parts of Damascus, particularly Muhajrin neighborhood, the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights reported.

In his sermon to the people, the mosque’s imam, Mohammad As-Sawan, referred to the unrest in the country which has reportedly killed 170,000 people.

"One thousand three hundred days of crisis have passed over our country, 1,300 days of difficult times, of plotting by enemies and disappointments on the part of out brothers and friends," he said in an allusion to Arab countries supporting the rebels against the Assad regime.

"The enemies of our nation have created chaos around the false Arab Spring," he added, and they had incited "sons of the same nation to sedition."

The Assad regime has never officially recognized the wave of opposition in the country, referring to it as “terrorism” financed from abroad and especially by the Gulf states.

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