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.

A Friend of my Father: Iran’s Manipulation of Bashar al-Assad

August 28, 2014 by Bassam Barabandi and Tyler Jess Thompson

In March 2011, just a few days after the uprisings began in Syria, the Secretary of Iran’s Supreme National Security Council, Saeed Jalili, made an unannounced visit to Damascus. He came with a clear message: Do not give in to the Arab Spring in Syria. Jalili met with President Bashar al-Assad and his top advisors to propose what he called a new “Iron Curtain” with Iran and Russia against a Western conspiracy in the region. Assad took the offer despite his father’s efforts to keep his dubious Iranian ally at arm’s length. Now the world watches as Iran increases its influence in both Syria and Lebanon, building toward an improved bargaining position with the West. By design, this process will soon render Bashar dispensable to all sides.

As a diplomat for the Syrian Foreign Ministry in 2008, I attended a dinner during a diplomatic visit with Iranian Ambassador Ahmad al-Mousawi. He told me, “Iranians are all blooming flowers planted by Mohamad Nassif.” Nassif was a close advisor to Hafez al-Assad, and until recently the deputy vice president for security. Ambassador Mousawi’s statement hints at the complexities of Iran and Syria’s relationship over the last forty-five years. The Syrian constitution requires the president to be a Muslim. As an Alawite in the 1970s, Hafez al-Assad needed to put to rest any question of his religious legitimacy. He saw an opportunity in Musa al-Sadr, an influential Iranian Shia scholar in Lebanon. Assad supported Sadr’s rise, and in return, Sadrdeclared that all Alawites were brothers in the Shia Muslim faith. Sadr later suggested that Assad meet an influential Iranian Shia named Khomeini, then exiled in Iraq. Assad saw strategic benefit in supporting a future ally in the region, and supported Khomeini with intelligence, money, and assistance. Syria was the first Arab state to recognize the post-Shah government in Iran and backed it in conflicts throughout the 1980s, particularly that against Saddam Hussein in Iraq.

Lebanon proved to be the upper limit of the alliance between Iran and Syria. Iranian aspirations for regional dominance meant helping to establish Hezbollah in Lebanon to build influence there. Assad, however, created his own power players in Lebanon, culminating to a boiling point in 1986 for the first timein a Shia-on-Shia conflict. Hafez aligned his troops with the Amal Movement. Iranian Quds forces allied with Hezbollah. Hafez’s military victory in this conflict marked the Syrian-imposed limit of Iran’s expansionist policy in Lebanon. From then on, Hafez kept a distance from both Hezbollah and Iran, who were tireless their search for influence in the Levant. Hafez’s ailing health presented an opportunity to get closer to Syria’s power center through his son, Bashar.

It was an open secret among us in government that Bashar lacked confidence in his leadership abilities. Trained as an ophthalmologist in London and only groomed for leadership upon his brother’s death in 1994, many of us felt he was ill prepared to take the country’s helm. Hezbollah leader Hassan Nasrallah developed a relationship with Bashar a few years before his father’s death in 2000 and endeared himself to Bashar in a way that his father would never allow. On the last day of national mourning for Hafez’s death, I went to Latakia with the foreign ministry to receive a brigade of Hezbollah fighters from Lebanon, who marched in a memorial parade. The display of military solidarity sent a message to Bashar—that Hezbollah would be a source of confidence. 

The Iranian government had a harder time getting close to Bashar than their Hezbollah proxy. I attended several meetings with Iranian officials who sought to establish a “red phone” between Tehran and Damascus, so that Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei could coordinate with Bashar. Mohamad Nassif, knowing that Hafez would never have approved, rejected the idea before even notifying Bashar of the offer. In another attempt, Iran put key Syrian businessmen in control of shrines in Damascus and land for religious schools throughout Syria. Many of these businessmen had sold Iran weapons during its war with Iraq and helped acquire contracts with the Syrian government. Control over the shrines and schools ensured a steady flow of pro-Iranian influence and money in Syria’s capital to buy loyalty from elites. All the while, Iran still wanted control over Bashar. 

The March 2011 uprising presented an irresistible opportunity for Iran to assert permanent dominance throughout greater Syria. Iran acted quickly, sending Secretary Jalili to Damascus just days after protesters took to the streets in Daraa. Jalili pitched the Iron Curtain plan to Bashar’s inner circle, assuring them that he knew the formula to neutralize protesters effectively. Iranian officials encouraged Assad to avoid concessions that could limit their influence over Assad’s inner circle. As the tensions evolved into armed conflict, Iran immediately sent advisors, snipers, and special forces to support Bashar. To compensate for defections from his officers, Bashar padded his loyalist camp with fighters and strategic planners from Iran and Hezbollah. Hafez spent decades protecting himself from such an incursion, but by late 2011, his son was desperate for a friend.

With Iran confirming a “no concessions” approach, Assad was wary of other states courting him with reform options. In 2011, we received separate reform proposals from Qatar and the UAE. Assad refused both. As the death toll escalated, Turkey seemed to dent the Iron Curtain with its proposal on January 27, 2012 to downgrade Assad to prime minister, but allow him to preserve his control over the military and air force intelligence. The plan proposed that Vice President Farouk al-Shara, a Sunni who had previously called for reconciliation, assume the presidency and place Assad’s brother-in-law, Assif Shwakat, as defense minister. The Iranians balked at the plan—they could not trust a reformer in the top position or Shwakat. Assad himself did not trust the Turks, but was willing to consider options as the conflict escalated out of control under the Iron Curtain. By February, Bashar engaged with the Turks on their plan in an effort to ease Western pressure. 

In March 2012, Vice President Shara hosted reconciliation meetings with the opposition. Iran was furious and used its influence to stop any further meetings. Reconciliation posed a direct threat to Iran’s Iron Curtain strategy, threatening to reunify the country outside of the Iranian umbrella. On July 18, a bombin Damascus killed Assif Shwakat and several other key members of the security apparatus. Iranian officials used the bombing to convince Assad that reconciliation would only bring more attacks on his inner circle. In response, Bashar became more intransigent, and avoided any restructuring that would reduce his power. 

Meanwhile, Hezbollah proved to be an effective fighting force for Bashar. The Battle of Qusayr in 2013 marked an important moment in this relationship. Syrian forces tried to take the predominantly Sunni city—surrounded by Alawite areas—from the rebels three times and failed. Hezbollah entered the surrounding regions. Through media and propaganda campaigns, Hezbollah convinced the people that Assad could not protect them. When Hezbollah overtook the rebels in Qusayr, the surrounding Alawite communities were more adoptive of their propaganda and influence. Iran capitalized on this gain by establishing Syrian Hezbollah, investing heavily in the pro-government militias known as the National Defense Forces.

Through Hezbollah and the National Defense Force, Iran fostered an effective future insurgency in Syria. This core group of fighters, and the civilian populations they control, are Iran’s new stronghold for influence and trust in Syria. As Assad’s barrel bombs drove large portions of Syria’s Sunni and other populations out of the country, Hezbollah and the National Defense Force stoked sectarianism, convincing the Shia and Alawite populations that Bashar cannot protect them—only Iran can. This strategy has now placed Iran as the key power broker for Syria, regardless of Bashar al-Assad’s fate.

Iran’s incursion into Assad’s inner circle makes it capable of causing the collapse of his regime. On August 5 in Al Arabiya, Hussein Sheikh al-Islam, Iran’s former ambassador to Syria, claimed that Tehran has consistently pleaded with Bashar against his brutal approach to the uprising. This statement, completely incongruous with Iran’s real guidance to the Syrian government, reveals the beginnings of the betrayal moment. With Iran’s newly secured source of influence among militias on the ground, such rhetoric reveals Bashar’s expendability with Iran poised to dominate any transitional process. Tehran will retain control over Hezbollah and the National Defense Forces, thereby maintaining its influence in the country. Hafez warned his son of this threat before he died, long before the revolution. Iran’s wartime alliance with Bashar was never about religious kinship or keeping him in power. It is about controlling Syria, with or without the Assads.

UN: ‘Countless Actors’ Fighting in Syrian War

FILE- This undated image posted by the Raqqa Media Center, a Syrian opposition group, on June 30, 2014, which has been verified byr AP, shows fighters from the al-Qaida linked Islamic State group during a parade in Raqqa, Syria.

FILE- This undated image posted by the Raqqa Media Center, a Syrian opposition group, on June 30, 2014, which has been verified byr AP, shows fighters from the al-Qaida linked Islamic State group during a parade in Raqqa, Syria.

August 27, 2014 by VOA

The United Nations says the war in Syria has become a conflict with “countless actors and front lines” with both government forces and various anti-government fighters committing crimes against humanity.

In a new report Wednesday, the U.N. commission of inquiry on Syria highlights the effect the conflict is having on the region, saying the impact is “no longer confined to Syrian territory.”

Commission chairman Paulo Pinheiro called attention to the Islamic State militants who have taken over large areas in eastern Syria as well as northern and western Iraq, saying the group “poses a clear and present danger to civilians” in areas it controls.
 
The report says the Islamic State’s gains in Iraq have boosted its military capabilities, and that the militants are increasingly fighting other anti-government groups in Syria instead of Syrian forces.
 
The commission noted the international support meant to boost “moderate” opposition fighters, saying those efforts to provide money and equipment have not helped reverse the dominance of radical armed groups operating in Syria.
 
The report also calls attention to the lack of an enduring international push to find a resolution to the crisis, saying “influential states have turned away from the difficult work required for a political solution.”
 
Long-sought face-to-face peace talks mediated by former U.N. envoy for Syria Lakhdar Brahimi concluded earlier this year with little progress.
 
Pinheiro said the fighting in Syria is continuing “with no regard to law or to conscience” as hundreds of people die every day.
 

Death toll in Syria Civil War, 2011 - 2014
Death toll in Syria Civil War, 2011 - 2014

The U.N. said last week that more than 191,000 people have been killed since the conflict began in March 2011.
 
Wednesday’s report says the apparent goal of the Syrian military’s operations is “to render life unbearable in areas out of its control,” detailing the use of sieges followed by bombing campaigns and the arrests of men who are of fighting age. 
 
It also says the government has used illegal chlorine gas in its attacks, and is “systematically targeting civilians and civilian infrastructure.”
 
The commission recommends that the U.N. Security Council consider referring the crisis to the International Criminal Court, and calls on all parties to stop abuses that include murder, rape, torture and forced disappearances.

UN: 43 UN peacekeepers seized in Syrian Golan Heights

United Nations, August 28, 2014 by AFP

The United Nations said that an armed group captured 43 UN peacekeepers on the Syrian side of the Golan Heights on Thursday and that it was doing everything to secure their release.

An additional 81 peacekeepers were “currently being restricted to their positions in the vicinity of Ar Ruwayhinah and Burayqah,” it added.

Israel closed off the area around Quneitra on Wednesday after an officer was wounded by stray fire as Syrian rebels, including fighters from the Al-Qaeda affiliate Al-Nusra front, stormed the crossing.

No details were released on the nationalities of the detained peacekeepers but six countries are contributing to the 1,200-strong unit: Fiji, India, Ireland, Nepal, Netherlands and the Philippines.

"Forty-three peacekeepers from the United Nations Disengagement Observer Force (UNDOF) were detained early this morning by an armed group in the vicinity of Quneitra," it said in a statement.

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

"The United Nations is making every effort to secure the release of the detained peacekeepers and to restore the full freedom of movement of the force throughout its area of operation," it added.

In June 2013, there was a similar takeover of the crossing by rebel forces, but the Syrian army managed to regain control.

On the Israeli-occupied side of the Golan, an AFP correspondent saw six white UN vehicles crossing the ceasefire line into Syrian territory through a gate in the fence some 25 kilometers (15 miles) south of the Quneitra crossing.

Quneitra is the only crossing between the Syrian and the Israeli-controlled side of the strategic plateau.

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

Filipino defense officials said no fresh troops would be sent to serve in UNDOF once the current soldiers return from duty in October.

Last year the Philippines also considered pulling its Golan peacekeepers out after 25 of them were kidnapped but later freed by Syrian rebels in two separate incidents.

A Filipino soldier was also wounded by a wayward shell last year.

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.

During fighting on Wednesday, several mortars landed in or near UN positions, UN spokesman Stephane Dujarric said.

Israel, which has yet to sign a peace deal with Syria, seized 1,200 square kilometers (460 square miles) of the Golan Heights during the 1967 Six-Day War and later annexed it in a move never recognized by the international community.

NGO: IS executes ‘dozens’ of captured Syrian soldiers

Beirut, August 28, 2014 by AFP

Islamic State fighters have executed “dozens” of Syrian soldiers it captured during its storming of a key northern air base this week, a monitoring group said on Thursday.

The jihadists boasted on Twitter that they had killed 200 defeated troops and posted video of what they said was the garrison in headlong flight.

"Dozens of Syrian soldiers captured while fleeing…after the IS overran Tabqa airbase were executed by the jihadists during the night," said Rami Abdel Rahman, head of the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights.

The jihadists seized the airport on Sunday after weeks of bitter fighting with loyalist forces, cementing their control over Raqa province, capital of their self-declared Islamic “caliphate.”

Abdel Rahman said the defeated garrison comprised 1,400 soldiers, 200 of whom were killed and 700 of whom managed to escape.

The other 500 remain on the run. Dozens were captured on Wednesday night as they attempted to cross the desert to government-held territory in the Orontes Valley to the west.

IS posted video footage showing young men in underwear being marched barefoot along a desert road. Militants shouted “Islamic State” and “There’s no going back.”

In Syria, the group controls all of Raqa province and much of Deir Ezzor further down the Euphrates Valley towards the Iraqi border.

It also controls most of the Sunni Arab heartland of neighboring Iraq, north and west of Baghdad, including second city Mosul.

It has repeatedly posted often gruesome videos, both as a warning to those joining up to the Syrian army and as a propaganda tool to recruit volunteers from the wider Islamic world.

Obama’s approach in confronting Islamic State overlooks Syria

Washington, August 22, 2014 by Hannah Allam and Jonathan S. Landay

Despite two weeks of U.S. airstrikes in northern Iraq, the Islamic State retains its bloody grip on roughly half of the country and is rolling up new conquests in Syria, piling pressure on President Barack Obama to develop a comprehensive, cross-border strategy to crush the group.

The lack of such a response to the Islamic State’s use of Syria as a springboard for attacking Iraq is the most glaring omission of Obama’s approach to the current crisis. Hitting the group in Syria carries huge risks, not the least being aiding the Assad regime in its war with the Islamic State and other insurgents. Yet not quickly eradicating what senior U.S. officials concede is a terrorist threat without precedent means the danger to international security likely will metastasize.

“There is no policy,” said a senior U.S. defense official, who requested anonymity because of the sensitivity of the issue.

The absence of a comprehensive approach that includes Syria reflects the White House’s desire to extricate the United States from 14 years of foreign wars. It also underscores the administration’s tardy response to numerous U.S. intelligence warnings about the Islamic State, dismissed by Obama as recently as January as a “J.V. team.”

Yet Obama’s top military advisers implicitly acknowledged this week that trying to hold the line against the Islamic State in Iraq won’t work, and that only by eliminating the group’s Syrian strongholds can it be eliminated.

“They can be contained, not in perpetuity,” Army Gen. Martin Dempsey, the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, said Thursday. “Can they be defeated without addressing that part of their organization which resides in Syria? The answer is no.”

Following the gruesome slaying by the Islamic State of American journalist James Foley, the White House opened the door to targeted airstrikes _ possibly using missile-firing drones _ against the group in Syria.

“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,” Deputy National Security Adviser Ben Rhodes said Friday.

At the same time, Rhodes said, the Pentagon hasn’t given Obama “specific military options.”

For now, the administration’s military plans don’t go beyond giving air support and advice to Iraq’s problem-plagued army and the militia of the autonomous Kurdish region as they fight to blunt the offensive that has swept the al Qaida spinoff from the northern city of Mosul to the suburbs of Baghdad.

Instead, Obama appears to be gambling that Iraq’s incoming prime minister, Haider al Abadi, can rebuild the mostly defunct Iraqi military, reconcile with the aggrieved Sunni Muslim and Kurdish minorities, and convince Sunni tribal leaders to drive the Islamic State from their territories.

That would be a tall order for a brand new premier, who comes from the same Shiite Muslim party as his unpopular predecessor, Nouri al Maliki, and enjoys little, if any, support among ordinary Sunnis. And such efforts aren’t a quick fix: It took years for the U.S. military to enlist the Sunni tribes to turn against the Islamic State’s forerunner, al Qaida in Iraq.

Under Obama’s approach, once Abadi formed a more inclusive government, the United States would organize a broader response to the Islamic State threat by Iraq’s Arab neighbors and U.S. allies.

Even Obama seems to lack confidence in his own approach. Asked at an Aug. 18 news conference about how he planned to deal with the Islamic State, he replied, “A lot of that depends on how effectively the Iraqi government comes together.”

Obama, many experts said, must develop a multifaceted, long-term plan supported by Middle Eastern partners if he wants to make good on his vow this week to “extract this cancer.”

And any approach, they said, means that the cautious Obama will have to agree to deeper U.S. involvement in the Syrian civil war pitting the regime of President Bashar Assad, who’s supposed by Iran and Hezbollah, Lebanon’s Shiite militia movement, against the Islamic State and a potpourri of weaker rebel factions.

“The notion that the Iraq war can be separated from the Syrian civil war is pure fantasy,” said Shadi Hamid, an expert on Islamist groups at the Brookings Institution, a Washington policy institute. “This is what’s so worrying about the Obama administration’s approach. There is no plan. There is no vision on that front. There is no effort to talk about Syria in a different way.”

With the Islamic State still gloating over the on-camera execution this week of Foley – and threatening the same fate for other American hostages – administration officials are struggling to find a way to fight the group without using U.S. ground forces or supporting Assad or his chief foreign supporter, Iran.

Assad’s air force has been bombing the group. But that hasn’t stopped the militants from conquering new territory in northern Syria and advancing on Aleppo, the country’s commercial center and largest city. And the militants have taken at least three more foreign hostages in the past week.

One thing there’s little debate over is that airstrikes alone won’t work. Yet there is no consensus around a single approach among the analysts who’ve closely monitored the evolution of the group, whose earliest incarnation formed in the security vacuum created by the undermanned 2003 U.S.-led invasion of Iraq.

Counterterrorism specialists, veteran diplomats and foreign policy strategists offer divergent and contradictory ideas; each one comes with the caveat that there is no risk-free option.

The thorniest debates are over what to do about Syria. Bulked up by thousands of foreign fighters and U.S. combat vehicles and artillery captured from the Iraqi army, the Islamic State has routed other rebel groups and beaten Syrian forces in every battle they’ve fought.

“Washington now needs to assemble a combined Iraq-Syria strategy to have any chance of containing the Islamic State. That may ultimately include U.S. air attacks against Islamic State positions in northern Syria,” Nicholas Burns, a former undersecretary of state who now teaches at Harvard’s Kennedy School of Government, wrote in an essay this month.

The most hawkish analysts also propose deploying U.S. ground troops, if necessary, hardly a popular idea among Americans demanding an end to U.S. involvement in overseas conflicts.

Other experts want the ground forces component outsourced to either “vetted” moderate Syrian rebel groups – an approach recently embraced half-heartedly by Obama, who is seeking $500 million for the effort from Congress – or to longtime Kurdish militia allies in northern Iraq.

But those ideas have significant drawbacks. One major flaw: the lack of any sizable moderate Syrian rebel force capable to taking on the Islamic State.

On the other end of the spectrum are arguments that the United States lacks regional leverage or that greater U.S. involvement could only make things worse, so it’s better to focus on non-military strategies like bolstering Arab allies and expanding humanitarian aid.

Several experts have floated the idea of forging an international coalition to fight the Islamic State, with emphasis on pressuring Arab nations to do more to stop their citizens from joining the group and cracking down harder on private donors.

Taking into account the limitations of the U.S. role, Obama mainly should focus on averting worst-case scenarios, argued Nada Bakos, a former CIA analyst who was on the team that hunted Osama bin Laden, and Tara Maller, a former CIA analyst who focused on Iraq.

Writing in an Aug. 14 opinion piece for CNN, they said that the most realistic steps would be continuing targeted U.S. airstrikes, securing any chemical or biological weapons stockpiles, tracking Westerners who join the Islamic State and boosting security at U.S. facilities abroad.

Then there’s the touchiest suggestion of all: that the Obama administration should restore relations with the Assad regime to fight a common enemy. But such a move would be a death blow to the Syrian revolt.

It also would reverse a years-old U.S. demand that Assad step down and ignite a political firestorm over cooperating with a tyrant who the administration accuses of war crimes, including killing and injuring hundreds of civilians with chemical weapons.

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