Thursday, 2 August 2012
Lawrence Freeman, an editor of the Executive Intelligence Review magazine, says the U.S. rhetoric that the military should remain intact after Assad leaves doesn't fit with its earlier accusations that government forces are massacring the Syrian people.
Here are the real voices of Syria's uprising
A reporter inside Syria talks to the real-life people affected by the protests and government crackdown.
DAMASCUS, Syria — When you ask Syrians, few have heard about the hoax involving a lesbian blogger in Damascus named Amina Arraf, which was created by an American man living in Scotland. It is not important to them.
They are too busy monitoring protests, watching the government’s survivalist maneuvers and trying to make sure their friends and families are safe.
Yet the Arraf story has dominated Syria-related headlines throughout the world for days now. As death tolls began to seem repetitive, Arraf gave journalists a pretty protagonist to represent Syria’s oppressed populace. She was a sympathetic character with clear views and a penchant for hyperbolic language.
She was also fiction.
The hoax reminded the few journalists living inside Syria of the importance of nevertheless seeking out individual voices, so people overseas can identify with the real human beings living inside a country that is so mired in mystery, misinformation and violence.
Syria’s real-life young people have multi-faceted ideas based on their backgrounds and present concerns — the threat of death the most pressing among them.
The following is five profiles of Syrians who represent very different aspects of the population. Their names have been changed to protect their identities — one of the most suspicious traits of the imaginary Arraf was her brazen use of her real name and photo.
“Sometimes, with all that is happening now, I question my decision to stay here,” said Burhan Hatoom, 28, a cardiologist who works at a Damascus hospital. “I have no idea what the future holds for me now. At the same time, I know I can do more good by being here. This country needs doctors right now.”
As he sipped his cold al-Mazeh Lebanese beer outside a street café in the old city of Damascus, Hatoom ruminated on the limited prospects for his future. As a member of the half-million strong minority Druze sect, he said he feels “threatened” by the prospect of regime change that would empower the country’s Sunni majority. So he wants to leave Syria. He knows colleagues at hospitals in Missouri and Ohio, and could join them there, he said. But his parents and four siblings live in an apartment together in Jaramana, a Damascus suburb filled with many Iraqi refugees and people from various Syrian communities, where, as yet, no significant protests have taken place.
“We never know when it is going to start there,” he said. “And I can’t just leave my family behind.”
When Ammar Al-Saadi, left his Sunni neighborhood in Damascus to begin his obligatory military service in November, he said with a sigh: “So many people try so hard to avoid it; I am just going to get it done.”
At 20, this is his attitude — mature, realistic and responsible. He held no firm political views for or against the government; he was more focused on the immediate — helping neighbors with home repairs, working as a courier and caring for his widowed mother.
So Al-Saadi left his home and his job to begin training. Four months later, he was in Deraa as part of the military crackdown on civilians there. He was one of the thousands of conscripted young men who, regardless of their personal opinions, are sent to complete a grim task.
When reached by phone in early June, he was in Idleb province, where the government is now moving in to re-assert government control over several towns, including Jisr al-Shughour. The fighting has caused thousands of Syrians to flee to the Turkish border, where they now languish in refugee camps.
“There are many problems here. We keep telling the people — this is forbidden, you must stop — but they just won’t listen. We don’t know what to do,” he said with a pleading voice.
Rather than lament the experience or elaborate further (on a phone line that could be monitored by the Syrian security, which is common), he ended the conversation by insisting: “If you need anything, tell me and I’ll send my brother to help.”
Beyond the empty highway leading north out of Damascus, dotted only by the occasional truck, military checkpoint and roadside mosaic of late President Hafez al-Assad, is Bloudan. The town is set at the highest point in Syria, with views of mountains in both the Israeli-occupied Golan Heights and Lebanon visible from its precipice.
Joseph Skaf, 23, is one young resident. He commutes 50 minutes every day to his job as an accountant in Damascus. He is Christian, but the town is primarily Sunni and he says that he and his neighbors are “unaffected” by small-scale protests in the town of Zabadani in the valley below.
“Everything is fine here,” he insists, even though the summer villas throughout his town belonging to Gulf residents escaping their region’s oppressive heat sit empty this year.
Skaf is incredibly proud of his hometown, and he laments the future of this peaceful hamlet if the unrest continues to rise. He complains about the protesters' lack of organization and purpose, arguing that they are incapable of effecting positive change in the country.
"Most Syrians want things to stay the same," he said. In Bloudan, subtle changes are evident but so far the violence remains at a comfortable distance.
“I am happy,” said Yaser Darwish, 25, smiling.
He is happy that necessary change is occurring, he said, while at the same time worried about the safety of his friends and family. The 25-year-old translator lives in Barzeh, a restive neighborhood north of Damascus, where he gathers for a weekly sahra — evening visit — with a group of like-minded friends, where they talk excitedly about the unfolding events. Sham TV, the network airing mobile phone footage of protests, frequently plays in the background.
“Look around the room,” he said one evening, pointing to friends. “Kurd, Alawi, Sunni — Fitna? What fitna?” he asks, referring to the Arabic word for sectarian strife, which the regime has used to drum up fear of the potential aftermath if it is to fall.
Several of their friends have been arrested and tortured. But they remain committed to seeing the movement through. Although Darwish does not attend demonstrations, he supports opposition figures and is constantly on Facebook, posting video and opinion articles.
“I’ve waited my entire life for this,” he said. “And I’m just glad it’s happening in my lifetime. This needed to happen. It’s hard. But it’s a good thing.”
Leila Haddad, 27, works in the housekeeping department of the Sheraton in Damascus. Nowadays, with hotel occupancy virtually at zero, she has no work and mostly stays home in her small house in the Christian quarter of Damascus’ old city. There, women in cotton pajamas sit on worn couches, sipping coffee and Argillah and talking about the conspiracy.
“Why are they doing this?” Haddad, who is the eldest daughter of the family, asked. “We know there are problems, but this is not the way.”
She is criticizing the country’s protesters for “attacking” and “killing” soldiers, a narrative repeated around-the-clock on the Syrian state television channel, which flickers on the television in the corner of the family’s sitting room.
She says she wants things to stay the same.
“Things were better before this all started up,” she said, arguing, cryptically, that if the late President Hafez al-Assad were still around "this would all be over already." In 1982, the late Assad crushed a Muslim Brotherhood rebellion by razing the town of Hama and killing tens of thousands of its inhabitants.
As evidence mounts that foreign Islamists are fighting alongside Syria’s increasingly radicalized rebels, Christians in Aleppo and elsewhere are taking up arms, often supplied by the regime.
“We saw what happened to the Christians in Iraq,” Abu George, a Christian resident of Aleppo’s Aziza district told GlobalPost. “What is going on in Aleppo is not a popular revolution for democracy and freedom. The fighters of the so-called Free Syrian Army are radical Sunnis who want to establish an Islamic state.”
While the 30-year-old shopkeeper said he had not received any direct threats from Syria’s Sunni Muslim rebels, he fears a repeat of Iraq’s sectarian bloodletting.
Since the 2003 US-led invasion of Iraq, the UN Human Rights Council estimates around half of Iraq’s 1.4 million Christians have fled the country, driven out by nearly a decade of church bombings, kidnappings and sectarian murder.
The plight of Christians in Iraq has long worried Syria’s estimated two million Christians, around 10 percent of the population. The nightmare of similar persecution has led them to support the secular regime of President Bashar al-Assad, which presents itself as a defender of minorities.
With Syria now gripped by civil war and the Assad regime fighting for its survival, however, Christians like Abu George fear retribution, already occurring in some parts of the country, from the Sunni-led rebels they refused to back.
In Qseir, a town of some 60,000 people southwest of Homs, which has been under siege by regime forces for at least seven months, mosques recently rang out with the call for all Christians, who numbered around 10,000, to leave.
The breakdown of inter-communal relations in Qseir stems from both rising fundamentalism among Sunni fighters and the widespread belief that Christians had been collaborating with the Assad regime.
Just 10 miles from the border with Lebanon, Qseir Sunni fighters are increasingly radicalized. Some openly identify themselves as mujahadeen fighting for an Islamic Caliphate rather than simply the overthrow of the Assad dictatorship.
“We fight to raise the word of God,” said Abu Salem, a 29-year-old Syrian from Qseir, recuperating recently in the no-man’s-land border between Lebanon’s northern Bekaa Valley and Syria.
As shells exploded less than a mile away, the former cement mixer showed photos on his mobile phone of Osama Bin Laden and the latest videos from Al Nusra Front, the little known jihadi group that has claimed responsibility for many of the biggest bombings to hit Damascus since January.
More from GlobalPost: Who bombed Damascus?
“After the regime is toppled this will be the first stone in building the Islamic Caliphate and Syria must adopt Islamic law,” he said.
The skinny fighter said his group, the Mujahedeen Brigade, was led by a Syrian who fought against US troops in Iraq’s Fallujah. Abu Salem said he received money from Syrian expatriates in the Gulf and that it came with the greeting that is commonly used by ultra-conservative Salafists.
While Abu Salem’s claims were impossible to verify, there is little doubt that Qseir’s Sunni fighters have grown increasingly radicalized over the past six months.
More from GlobalPost: Syria: The new land of jihad?
Abu Ali, a military intelligence officer who defected to the rebels and was first profiled by GlobalPost last November, and then again in a video published in March, now leads Qseir’s Wadi Brigade, one of the town’s largest and strongest rebel groups.
Interviewed regularly over Skype over the last six months, Abu Ali has expressed increasingly fundamentalist and intolerant views. He once called for foreign military assistance. But now he says that if international forces join the fight against Assad, “they would be the ones we target, even before the regime.”
Injured by shrapnel at least twice since joining the fight in Qseir last December, Abu Ali has grown a thick beard. Increasingly conservative, he criticized a Muslim reporter for smoking during a Skype call, citing the current period as a time of “holy war.”
Abu Ali said he supported the call for Christians to leave Qseir, accusing them of collaborating with the regime.
In interviews with more than a dozen Qseir residents, a Wall Street Journal reporter recently discovered a vicious cycle of murder and kidnap between Sunni and Christian families, triggered by claims that Christians were acting as regime spies. Almost all Qseir’s Christians have now fled, with many taking shelter in makeshift tents in the northern Bekaa valley.
“I used to work as a legal consultant, but now I live like a beggar here in Lebanon,” said a woman who gave her name as Marta and who said her husband had been kidnapped. She said her home in Qseir had been taken over by rebels and destroyed.
Abu George, from Aleppo, said officials from the ruling Baath Party had offered prominent Christians in Aziza and other Christian-majority areas of Aleppo “AKs and pistols” late last year. The weapons, they were told, were to protect themselves against the “armed gangs” the regime claimed to be fighting.
For the first year of Syria’s uprising, Aleppo remained largely untouched by the mass protests seen in opposition strongholds like Homs and Hama.
Today, however, Abu George sees the regime’s control over Aleppo as slipping, directly threatening his community.
“The armed fighters took over the Midan police station, very close to the Christian quarters. There are no police there now, so how can we live? We see on TV armed young men with beards shouting, ‘God is great!’ and calling for jihad. We have the right to defend ourselves.”
The exact number of Christians in Aleppo, a city of three million people, is not known but estimates vary between 100,000 and 250,000.
Like Abu George, Abu Omar al-Halaby was a shopkeeper who has taken up arms. But Abu Omar is a Sunni, a fighter with the Brigade of Unification, one of the largest rebel groups holed up in Aleppo’s Salah Adeen quarter.
Speaking to GlobalPost, Abu Omar said his unit had deliberately not deployed in Christian areas in order not to inflame communal tensions. “We are very concerned for civilians and have been working to get people out and to safety,” he said.
Abu Omar said he wanted the right “to go to a mosque, have a long beard and practice my Islamic duties freely” and said much of his motivation to fight stemmed from the religious persecution he saw his father suffer under Hafez al-Assad, Syria’s former dictator.
“My father was arrested for 15 years just because someone who hated him wrote a report to the security services, accusing him of being a member of the (banned) Muslim Brotherhood,” he said.
“He was not, but he was a religious man who spent time at the mosque. A piece of paper took him away from us. Three months after he was released from prison, he died.”
GlobalPost's James Foley, who is inside Aleppo, talks to the PBS Newshour:
As religious and sectarian hatred intensify, Syrian rebels are being joined by foreign jihadis, some of whom have reportedly fought in Iraq, Afghanistan and even Yemen.
Last week, a Dutch and a British photographer in northern Syria were released from captivity at what they said was a training camp for between 30 and 100 foreign jihadis, who repeatedly threatened to kill them.
“They were only foreign jihadis; I don’t think there was one Syrian among them,” Dutch photographer Jeroen Oerlemans told the New York Times. “All day we were spoken to about the Quran and how they would bring sharia law to Syria. I don’t think they were Al Qaeda, they seemed too amateurish for that. They said, ‘We’re not Al Qaeda, but Al Qaeda is down the road.’”
Standing guard at the Salama border crossing near Turkey, a rebel known as Abu Sadiq told GlobalPost last week that since they had seized that and other crossings on Turkish and Iraqi borders, “more Arab fighters had entered the country to fight with us against the Assad regime.”
Abu Sadiq said the foreign fighters included men from Saudi Arabia, Yemen, Algeria and Libya and that many he had met said they were inspired to come to Syria after seeing the news on the massacres in Houla and Homs.
“We try to keep the non-Syrian fighters out of sight as we don’t want them hurting us with their radical ideas. The Assad regime brings Shiites from Iran, Iraq and Lebanon and Russian military experts so we have the right to ask for help from Sunni nations,” Abu Sadiq said.
“The regime made this a sectarian war against the Sunnis. Syria is not Afghanistan, but right now we need help from anyone.”
A GlobalPost reporter contributed from Aleppo, Syria, Hugh Macleod and Annasofie Flamand contributed from Beirut, with additional reporting by Rami Aysha.
Swallowing the big lie on Syria
Commentary: Reporting massacres that didn’t happen, and other media sins.
Antibes, France — The Western media should have learned a lesson from the Iraq fiasco.
Most of the mainstream media gave a free pass to a Republican White House that promoted the Big Lie that Saddam Hussein's regime was somehow linked to terrorism and armed with weapons of mass destruction. The Bush administration found it was child's play to manipulate even the New York Times.
A lot has happened on the road from Baghdad to Damascus, but it seems that both Washington policymakers and the media still have much to learn.
This time a Democrat administration is using the Arab Spring to get rid of an inconvenient leader. No need to invade Syria or risk American lives. Just use discrete American guidance and arms supplied by American allies in the region to make sure that a home-grown insurgency has enough of the right stuff to win an insurrection. “You'll notice in the last couple of months, the opposition has been strengthened,” a “senior U.S. Official” told the New York Times on July 20. “Now we're ready to accelerate that.” U.S. Officials have been selectively leaking information on the supposedly clandestine American involvement in the Syrian conflict, an apparent effort to shape public opinion by suggesting that the United States is helping elements of the opposition, without explaining how they can tell the good guys from the bad guys.
Propaganda, or the mobilization of public opinion, is a vital part of the operation. And once again, the American and Western media seem to be asking too few questions.
Western journalists are of course having a hard time reporting the war. Some have lost their lives. Barred from legally entering Syria, most are covering it from Turkey, Lebanon or more distant listening posts. But as pointed out by Russ Baker, whose web site is sharply critical of American media coverage, reporters should be telling us more about their usually anonymous sources inside Syria.
Who is the “Mohammed” who was telephoned by the New York Times and reported the “massacre” by government forces of 200 persons in the village of Tremseh). Was he an eye witness? Did the reporter try to find other sources?
Two days later, the Times acknowledged that the “massacre of civilians” was more likely a clash between heavily armed Syrian military and lightly armed local fighters, and the death toll was closer to 100, most of them young men.
In most such cases, Western officials use the unverified reports to make instant headlines denouncing Syrian “human rights violations,” with Secretary of State Hilary Clinton and UN Ambassador Susan Rice often leading the pack.
Western reporters clearly tend to assess opposition sources less critically than Syrian government sources. That bias may be justified, but civil wars are rarely fought by angels. Horrible things are done on all sides.
The Western media also seem to overlook the fact that the Syrian government is doing what most governments do when faced with an insurrection. They use whatever force they have to stamp it out, whether it's Sherman marching through Georgia, or Israel pounding Gaza.
You may not like the Assad family, but Western governments did business with it (and still do with a number of other Middle East dictatorships) for decades despite its behavior.
The pattern in the reporting of the Syrian civil war suggests the opposition (possibly in collaboration with western governments) are trying to manipulate the media. Headlines of increasingly bigger “massacres” of innocent “civilians” and reports of serial defections by regime generals and other officials all tend to give the impression that the opposition is on a roll and the regime is on its last legs. These reports may or may not be accurate, but they should treated with a bit of circumspection.
Libya was the play book for the Obama administration's handling of Syria, and this time, the information war seems to be following the same script. Allegations of mass rapes and distribution of condoms to government soldiers were duly reported by western media during the Libyan campaign, and guess what, allegations of widespread rape by the Syrian regime have just popped up.
The end result of disposing of Colonel Gadaffi can hardly be called a success. The country is still in turmoil. You could even argue that western involvement failed to accomplish its supposed purpose, to protect civilian lives. In Syria, the result of Western involvement may be far worse.
Post Ottoman Syria has a history of sectarian conflict, which was brutally crushed by the French during their mandate in the 1920's and again by the Assad family, who took a page out of the French book and ruled with an iron hand. The danger now is that Syria will again split into hostile ethnic enclaves with unpleasant consequences for the neighbors, including Israel. A relatively stable country could become a major source of instability in the Middle East, or in the words of one expert on the Middle East, “an outcome that contains the seeds of a war that never ends.”
The mainstream media have begun to air these concerns in recent weeks. It would have been better if they had been ahead of the curve and helped inform a public discussion of American involvement in Syria before it is too late.